An unexpected effect of the recent 35-day U.S. government shutdown was a major win for a boisterous group of elephant seals and somewhat of a loss for local beachgoers about 30 miles north of San Francisco, California.
One of the most viral topics to emerge as the longest government shutdown in U.S. history ran its course, was the unfortunate reality that the nation’s national parks were severely understaffed while also being taken advantage of by parkgoers of at the same time. In short, it was a recipe for disaster.
According to reports, people were pooping in ditches, leaving trash everywhere except inside of the appropriate trash receptacles, taking the old adage “the road less traveled” a little too far by making brand new roads where there shouldn’t be any roads at all, toppling trees in Joshua National Park, and much much more.
It turns out, humans weren’t the only ones taking advantage of this unique situation. The massive under-staffing of national parks in the U.S. paved the way for an equally unexpected, though far less destructive, situation than the one mentioned above.
Around 100 female elephant seals and their pups, along with a few males weighing in at three-tons each, took pack Drakes Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore, about 30 miles north of San Francisco. Not only has the rowdy group taken over the beach – the seals are in the parking lot and under the picnic tables, they’re crushing man-made things like wooden railings, and they’ve rendered the beach off-limits to humans.
Elephant seals, which can weigh up to 4,000 pounds, are currently fighting extinction, making a scene including such a massive number of them taking over a California beach a welcome sight to those in the know. They were hunted to near extinction with the first sighting of seals occurring in the late 1970s and the first pup being born in 1980 at Point Reyes after a 150-year absence.
“They’re at a critical time: the pups have been born there, they’re nursing. We’re not going to disrupt that process,” said John Dell’Osso, head of interpretation and resource education at Point Reyes.
Due to the popularity of Drakes Beach, park staff typically discourage the presence of the seals using what they call harmless “hazing” techniques like shaking a blue tarp in their direction. It turns out this is more to keep humans from bothering the seals than to keep the seals from bothering the humans. “We don’t want visitors disturbing or harming elephant seals, and we don’t want elephant seals harming visitors, either,” said Dave Press, a wildlife ecologist.
But, thanks to the government shutdown, the staff normally available to shoo the seals away at Drakes Beach weren’t there. Point Reyes National Seashore is typically staffed by about 85 people but the shutdown reduced that number to about a dozen. Reports of the presence of pregnant seals on the beach were first made around January 10th and there just weren’t enough hands on deck to respond adequately.
At almost one month after the initial reports, the crowd of boisterous seals persists, doing what they do best: soaking up the sun, making loud noises and wiggling around the seaweed. The most recent count included 53 cows, 10 males and 52 pups included in the colony.
Staff plan to reopen the road to the beach this weekend, with groups of visitors chaperoned by rangers and other staff getting to peek in on, but not disturb, the colony. These special glimpses onto the beach commandeered by the elephant seals will likely continue every weekend from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. into April when the pups will be weaned, grown, and ready to move on with the others.
“This is a great opportunity for folks to see ‘em up close. We want to take advantage of that, but also keep the seals the pups safe,” said ranger Carlo Arreglo.
Despite our desire to meddle, natural processes don’t often require human intervention and positive outcomes can come from the most unlikely of places. Dave Press said it best:
“If you just get out of the way, wildlife will find their way in.”
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