So far in 2021, parts of the North Bay near Santa Rosa are without nearly 20 inches of normal yearly rainfall, leading to concerns of another hellacious wildfire season on the horizon. Those same kinds of drought conditions, too, are linked to the deaths of over 150 tule elk.
Climate change is here and only getting worse. Among the fallen dominos caused by global warming, wild shifts in rainfall are expected to pendulate this century. The Amazon will grow barren; parts of the Sahara are expected to mutate into permanent lush grasslands; the Philippines will flood. Here in California, climate change will continue wreaking havoc on our already parched farmlands and forests, causing worse wildfires and depleting agricultural goods — all of which might come to a head later in 2021 and produce an extremely volatile wildfire season.
“Put a bird on it.” - Bryce Shivers and Lisa Eversman— National Park Service (@NatlParkService) April 1, 2021
Large herbivores are often visited by “cleaner birds” like magpies who pick the parasites from their skin or hair. Thus, the elk gets groomed, and the magpie gets dinner.
A recent report from the Chronicle shows that last years' persistent dryness, which has bled into 2021, already provided ample opportunity for significant fire activity. For example, January of this year saw 297 wildfires in California — almost tripling the five-year average for that month. During that same month in 2020, there were 97 wildfires that burned 22 acres. 1,171 acres were burned this January, statewide.
Moreover: From January 1 through April 4, California firefighters have collectively battled 995 fires that burned a total of 3,007 acres. Per the newspaper, this is a massive increase from the 697 fires that charred 1,266 acres in the same time period last year.
Currently, the entire state is experiencing some level of drought conditions; the Bay Area is now classified as being under "moderate" drought conditions, while Wine Country and the vast majority of Southern California are experiencing "severe" or "extreme" drought levels.
Suffice to say it's not looking good.
The aforementioned desiccation has transformed the grasslands and shrubbery groves many of the state's wildlife depend on into food deserts. Among the casualties caused by this lack of available sustenance? California’s threatened tule elk populations — which, as of publishing, number less than 6,000 examples split up between an estimated 22 herds sprinkled throughout the state.
According to KRON4, the National Park Service recorded 152 tule elks that have died from these drought conditions, simultaneously highlighting the fragile conservation status of the subspecies while also showing how the effects of climate change on biodiversity are detrimental (and somewhat unpredictable).
“This is a very rare animal," says animal activist Fleur Dawes. "These are rare, native, endemic to California. Tule elk. They are a symbol of this area. Yet right behind this fence, 152 animals were allowed to die during a drought."
Again: These animals didn't die from heat exhaustion — they perished from starvation. (Most of California’s tule elk herds exist inside fenced acreage, so a plan has been proposed to remove some of those fence lines to expand the animals' access to additional grazing pastures.)
Though the National Park Service’s 1998 tule elk management plan describes that population decline is a natural process and the recent deaths are within normal and predicted population fluctuations, it's the cause of their passings that has sparked concern.
“This is a national park area, wild animals are supposed to be protected here but instead they are dying,” Dawes said.
According to a state science assessment, California might see temperatures rise between 5.6 degrees and 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit on average by 2100, with each year leading up to that dystopian milestone experiencing significantly drier, harsher, hotter summer months — that will likely cause worse wildfires and deplete our state's naturally-occurring flora and fauna.
Image: Female Tule elk stands alone chewing grass by the ocean on a hillside at Point Reyese National Seashore in the Tule Elk Preserve (Courtesy of Getty Images/FlagtailsPhotography)