More than 250 tule elk died inside a fenced area at a Northern California seashore during a two-year period, and a lack of water is possibly the cause.
The National Park Service on Thursday confirmed the elk died inside a fenced elk preserve at California's Point Reyes National Seashore from 2012 to 2014.
The drought is likely causing the death, and the park is considering bringing in water for the animals, park wildlife ecologist David Press said.
"While we were out on the range conducting our annual census, we observed the ponds had gone dry. We are looking into options for carting water in, making sure there is water out there," Press said.
During the same period, free-roaming Point Reyes elk herds with more access to water increased by nearly a third, figures from the park service show.
The elk are successful example of an effort to save one of North America's larger species. Hunting drove the animals, known for the elaborate antlers, almost to extinction in the 19th century. Authorities reintroduced tule elk to the coast decades ago, and they now are a main attraction for more than 2.5 million tourists who visit the area each year.
Marin County dairy farmers, however, say the elk are competing with their cattle for forage. They are urging the National Park Service to remove dozens of elk and fence off their habitat.
"The reintroduction of elk to the Point Reyes peninsula is a success story for conservation of native species, but the elk are in jeopardy of eviction to benefit a few lease holders," said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The park service already prioritizes commercial cattle grazing in Point Reyes. Now these subsidized ranchers want to dictate park policies that could eliminate native elk and harm predators and other wildlife."
The tule elk are counted annually, and the herd can vary from 300 to 500 animals, park service spokeswoman Melanie Gunn said. In 2012 there were 540 elk, while 357 were counted in 2013. Last fall, there were 286.
Tule elk need room to roam, and native wildlife shouldn't live in a fenced in area, Miller said. The tule elk have been fenced since 1978, but park service officials are looking at options as they revamp their ranch management plan, likely by early next year