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Volunteers Carry Water Miles to Help Struggling Point Reyes Tule Elk Survive Drought

POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE (KPIX) -- Tomales Point at Point Reyes National Seashore has been home to a herd of tule elk since 1978. Last year, 152 animals -- a third of the entire population -- died. Officials said it was bound to happen but activists argue the Park Service can no longer stand by and watch the die-off.

Two years ago, the elk reserve at Tomales Point seemed idyllic, with green vegetation and plenty of water. Today it feels like another planet. The ground looks dead and some of the elk look like they're nearing that same fate.

"The last standing pond is down to about 8 percent of its level now and we see emaciated elk -- I mean just skin and bone," said elk advocate Jack Gescheidt.

Gescheidt took a photo of an elk up to its chest in sticky mud, trying desperately to get a drink.

Activists have been demanding the Park Service provide water and, recently, three large water tanks and troughs were installed for the herd farther south. But the elk at Tomales Point have little to drink so about 70 volunteers gathered Saturday morning at Pierce Point Historic Ranch to begin a 6-mile roundtrip hike carrying individual gallons of water to add to the dwindling watering hole.

"There's just something heartbreaking about the tule elk being out there without water," said Christine Koenig as she trudged up the trail holding a couple of gallon jugs. "And, if this is what it takes for us to give them water, that's a good thing."

The Park Service had no comment Saturday, citing ongoing litigation, but, on their website, they deny the animals are dying of thirst. They say the elk are, in fact, starving from lack of forage due to the drought.

"The Park Service says this is a natural 'population decline' and we say it can't be natural if they're in a fenced compound where they can't escape," Gescheidt said.

He said that, if they were free to range in the park, they would seek out sources of food and water but, because they're confined to their reserve and not allowed to roam onto the bordering cattle pastures, the Park Service has a moral responsibility to provide for them.

"You can't have it both ways," Gescheidt said. "If you want to fence them in and create a zoo-like enclosure -- the reserve -- then you've got to bring in food and water."

Laura Chariton joined the group for the trek to the watering hole. She served in a docent program for the elk herd, which has since been discontinued. She said the drought conditions have completely halted any new breeding within the population. She said she's worried about more than just the viability of the elk herd.

"We do have responsibilities to the future generations and I think one of them is to protect the biodiversity of our planet," Chariton said. "This is representative of ground zero, where we have an opportunity to do the right thing and it's not happening."

The water caravan probably added about 100 gallons to the pond so Saturday's effort was largely symbolic. But activists believe the publicity generated by their protests is forcing the Park Service to take seriously the deteriorating condition of the elk herd.

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