Sustainability Environment

National Park Service allows for the killing of native elk to appease ranchers, angering conservationists

POINT REYES, Calif. — Stepping outside of the car, the land that stretched before me looked less like a national park and more like the crop lines you might see from the window of a plane. A long line of barbed wire fencing reached out into the distant hills, creating a clear physical boundary between the conflicting parties of Point Reyes National Seashore.

On one side was a scene familiar to those who have driven through any Northern California hillsides — scrubby brush and pale greenery covered the landscape, flocks of small birds swooped low and the woodsy scent of cedar filled the air. On the other side sat a more curious sight: acres upon acres of barren pasture in the middle of a national park. “Was there a fire here recently?” I asked, gazing at a layer of char that covered the top of the dusty earth.

My guide assured me that no, that’s just how the ground looked now. It was an odd thing to see, and to smell, while visiting California’s only protected national seashore. Heaping mounds of dirt and manure were out of reach but not for my nostrils, which took in the scent of the cows that lazed about there. One turned its back to my group as it geared up to empty its bowels.

This distinct physical divide between natural landscape and leased farmland represented the struggle between conservationists and cattle farmers, caught in a decadeslong tug of war that was just extended by the National Park Service (NPS) last Friday: a newly announced management plan providing the farmers with an extra line of rope in the form of a 20-year extension of the leases on their land, and a controversial policy that will see the culling of endemic, vegetarian tule elk that supposedly graze too heavily upon cattle grass.  

Land grab

Located just an hour away from one of the country’s busiest cities, Point Reyes National Seashore has offered a respite to millions of San Franciscans since its congressional establishment back in 1962, “in order to save and preserve, for purposes of public recreation, benefit, and inspiration, a portion of the diminishing seashore of the United States that remains undeveloped.”

Visitors may delight in happening upon some of Point Reyes’ own residents during their visit — majestic tule elk, coyotes, bobcats, owls and more, and hike its misty hills or take a trail down to the beach. Permanent residents also include meat and dairy farmers, whose open pastures and feedlots situate around historic redwood farm homes and barns, but also more modern aluminum and steel utility buildings that at times break the skyline. In fact, visitors to the park are paying witness to one of the state’s earliest and largest examples of industrial-scale dairying.

Following the expulsion of Coast Miwok tribes in the area at the end of the 18th century, Mexican rancheros began grazing cattle upon the land in the 1830s, before California even became part of the United States. When it finally did in 1850, the land was divided by the owners into 32 dairy and cattle ranches to satisfy the growing demands coming from San Francisco Bay.

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In an attempt to stave off land developers in the mid-1950s, the government decided to purchase the land, and the NPS designated it as a recreational area in 1962. The question remained on what to do about the ranchers who had long claimed land on Point Reyes Peninsula, and over the following decade they were convinced to sell their land to the NPS. In turn, the ranchers were allowed to lease back the land they sold for up to 25 years or the death of the leaseholder. 

Fast forward to today and the ranchers’ beef and dairy operations continue to occupy one-third of the national seashore and 10,000 acres at the nearby Golden Gate National Recreation Area, 17 of which were designated as a federal historic district in 2018.

A battle of purpose

Over the years contention has grown between ranchers and conservationists and environmental activists, who view the park’s continued farming operations as violating federal law and its obligation to protect natural resources. Several groups have argued that the park’s preferred plan violates the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act, which charges the park service to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein.”

Right in the middle of this proverbial tug-of-war exists the endemic tule elk, a species once driven to the brink of extinction as a result of human expansion and hunting. Reintroduced to the park in 1972, Point Reyes is now the only national park where they can be found. 

Tule Elk: The Killing of a Native Species from Resource Renewal Institute on Vimeo.

Those in favor of tule elk conservation contend that the species faces great challenges to their continued health and survival due to the cows that are permitted to graze and defecate in the park as tule elk contract a disease called Johne’s disease through cow feces. Yet, as we drove around the park, miles of land upon which raw cow manure had been evenly spread became evident. 

Conservationists have also argued that nearly half the elk are confined behind fencing that prevents their free movement to find quality forage and water sources. Then, between 2012 and 2014, one-half of the elk in the park’s Tomales Elk Reserve died of thirst during a drought — confined behind elk-proof fencing built to appease the park’s cattle farmers. 

Two years later three environmental organizations sued the park service for neglect and failure to produce a comprehensive analysis of the effect of ranching on the seashore and thus violating the rules of the National Environmental Protection Act. 

“A plan can start with maximum protection but then we see this never ending stream of worsening compromise, and so it’s a never ending sort of winnowing of local wild nature,” says Ken Brower, an environmental journalist whose father was present when John F. Kennedy enacted the park. “So we, being the environmentalists, have to win every single time. They only have to win once.”

Alternative B

The NPS settled with terms that required the agency to consider a wide range of various management alternatives, one of which would have ended ranching on the national park altogether. The process also involved a public comment period, which closed last September. About 91 percent of the 7,600 comments submitted on the plan favored the conservation of elk over the demands of the ranchers, according to a detailed analysis by the Resource Renewal Institute.

But, when time came to announce the park’s preferred alternative — the first in the park’s 58-year history — leases for private ranchers were extended from five-year terms to up to 20-year-terms. The 24 ranching families in the park and neighboring Golden Gate National Recreation Area will also be given the opportunity to diversify their offerings beyond cows to include the management of other livestock such as goats, chickens and pigs as well as the planting of row crops such as artichokes. The plan, which will help ranchers diversify their income, is now being hotly contested by animal activists who believe it leaves the best interests of the national park and its wildlife behind. 

“Not only will the planting of row crops destroy the habitat, denning sites and hunting grounds for native wildlife, but the introduction of new domestic animals will immediately put native animals such as bobcats, coyotes, badgers, fox and others in direct conflict with ranchers,” says Chance Cutrano of Resource Renewal Institute. 

“What do you think happens when you bring sheep into a place where coyotes naturally roam?” Brower adds. “If the ranchers don’t decide to hunt the coyotes on their own, they’ll ask the National Park Service to take care of the issue for them.”

Perhaps the most controversial piece of the new plan is one that seeks to address conflicts between free-roaming, grazing tule elk herds and disgruntled ranchers, now allowing park staff to kill as many elk as is necessary to keep the population at a stable 120. Presently, it is a number that would require at least 12 to 18 elk to be killed per year, and Brower tells us that an upcoming birthing season might result in a further inflation of that number. 

“It isn’t just about the tule elk — you can see all kinds of little footnotes as a consequence of the harmful agricultural practices happening at this national park. From an influx of ravens preying upon endemic nesting birds to the salmon and steelhead [trout] that have now disappeared from Kehoe Creek,” says Brower. “It just shows that this is an incompatible marriage, between these two ideals of stewardship of this production versus preservation: they just don’t mix.”

The National Park Service, on the other hand, disagrees, citing a unique and historic harmony at Point Reyes that provides a public space in which nature may thrive and multi-generational ranchers are able to keep their living. 

“The preferred alternative sets the course for management of these leased ranch lands – it preserves multigenerational ranching in the park and provides the tools to maintain a viable free-ranging tule elk population in the planning area,” Point Reyes National Seashore’s acting superintendent Carey Feierabend wrote in a statement.

“In addition, the preferred alternative also sets forth opportunities for enhancing visitor access and enjoyment, recreation, and the continued stewardship of significant natural and cultural resources, including to national register historic districts.”

The NPS also maintains that public and agency engagement and feedback have been vital to the development and refinement of the final plan, and that the park’s enabling legislation, which gives the Secretary of the Interior the discretionary authority to lease federally owned land that was agricultural prior to its acquisition, is what actually led to the planning process. 

Next up for the park is a mandatory waiting period of at least 30 days, in which the NPS will consult with regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether the plans are in compliance with various U.S. conservation laws such as the Endangered Species Act. Once a final decision has been reached after this waiting period it will finally be time to implement Alternative B, but conservationists say they still won’t go down without a legal fight.

To learn more about local conservation efforts or to make a donation, you can check out the Restore Point Reyes National Seashore website. Read more about the National Park Service’s General Management Plan and view Public Comments to the initial scoping document.

This story was updated on Sept. 25 with additional information from the National Park Service.