Point Reyes National Seashore & Yellowstone National Park allegedly managed for cows over native wildlife
POINT REYES, California; BOZEMAN, Montana—Burning since an August 18, 2020 lightning strike, the 4,900-acre Woodward Fire at Point Reyes National Seashore is reportedly contained at last.
Issues rising with the smoke and cinders, though, smolder on, including the National Park Service policy of allegedly fencing rare tule elk away from water sources coveted by cattle ranchers on Tomales Point.
Newly released documents pertaining to tule elk management at Point Reyes National Seashore and bison management at Yellowstone National Park tend to confirm conservationists’ suspicion that the National Park Service under the Donald Trump administration is managing wildlife habitat in both iconic parks chiefly for the benefit of cattle ranchers.
Cows often favored on federal land other than National Parks
Pro-ranching policies are in turn allegedly causing preventable deaths of tule elk and bison, two of the longest protected U.S. species of hoofed, grazing wildlife.
That Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service property are typically managed for the benefit of cattle ranchers, often at the expense of wildlife, has never been any secret: the BLM and Forest Service were established in the first place to promote economic use of natural resources.
Catastrophic overgrazing and soil erosion on National Wildlife Refuge property leased to cattle ranchers, usually through the Bureau of Land Management, is also a familiar story.
“Next likely victims will be birds, bobcats, foxes & coyotes”
But National Seashores and National Parks, both managed by the National Park Service, are property preserved chiefly for recreational and scenic value, including wildlife observation.
Though hostile toward non-native species, as a matter of longstanding institutional policy, the National Park Service hosts most of the more easily seen and non-hunted concentrations of native wildlife within the U.S.
Nonetheless, the National Park Service on September 19, 2020 released a management plan amendment for Point Reyes National Seashore that, in the words of Center for Biological Diversity spokesperson Jeff Miller, “would enshrine commercial cattle ranching in the California park at the expense of native wildlife and natural habitat, calls for killing native tule elk, and would authorize new agricultural uses that will put other wildlife at risk.
“After the elk,” said Miller, “the next likely victims will be birds, bobcats, foxes and coyotes.”
Tule elk targeted, cattle ranching extended 20 more years
The National Park Service “final environmental impact statement” on Point Reyes National Seashore extends for another 20 years the existing five-year commercial leases held by 15 private dairy and beef cattle ranches on 26,100 acres––about a third of the National Seashore and the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area in coastal Marin County.
Charged Miller, “The plan authorizes continued overgrazing and does little to address ongoing damage by cattle to water quality and habitat for endangered species and other wildlife. The plan allows the Park Service to shoot native tule elk to appease ranchers and to drive elk away from designated ranch lands. It sets an arbitrary population cap of 120 elk for the Drake’s Beach herd, currently estimated at 138 elk, to be maintained by killing the animals.
“The Park Service can shoot any free-roaming elk who attempt to create new herds in the park, the only national park with tule elk,” Miller said.
Park land to become artichoke farms
“The plan also allows conversion of park grasslands and wildlife habitat to artichoke farms and other row crops,” Miller continued.
Row cropland is not as easily shared with tule elk and mule deer as cattle pastures. But allowing the conversion of parts of Point Reyes National Seashore to row crops is not the only major change written into the management regimen.
The “final environmental impact statement also allows “the expansion of commercial livestock farming to introduce sheep, goats, pigs or chickens. This will inevitably lead to conflicts with other native wildlife,” Miller predicted.
“The Park Service,” Miller mentioned, “is expected to sign a ‘record of decision’ giving final approval to the plan in 30 days,” meaning by October 18, 2020.
“Mowing & dumping manure in waterways”
The National Park Service produced the “final environmental impact statement” in response to the 2017 settlement of a lawsuit filed a year earlier by the Center for Biological Diversity, Resource Renewal Institute and Western Watersheds Project, after the Park Service tried to extend the National Seashore cattle grazing leases without doing an environmental review first.
“Under the Point Reyes Act,” explained Miller, “which created the National Seashore [in 1962], and the Organic Act, which guides management activities in national parks, activities authorized by the Park Service are supposed to maximize the protection of natural resources.”
“The final plan,” Miller acknowledged, “includes vague, aspirational management guidelines and standards that are supposed to protect natural resources from damage from cattle grazing and other ranching activities such as mowing and dumping manure in waterways. But the Park Service has consistently been unable and unwilling to enforce [previous] grazing lease conditions.”
Five times as many cattle as tule elk
According to the Point Reyes National Seashore and North District of Golden Gate National Recreational Area General Management Plan Amendment Final Environmental Impact Statement, as the document released on September 19, 2020 is formally titled, “24 families hold lease permits on approximately 18,000 acres of Point Reyes and 10,000 acres of the north district of Golden Gate.
“Approximately 2,400 animal units of livestock for beef ranching and 3,325 dairy animals are currently authorized under existing lease permits,” the final environmental impact statement explains.
“Eighteen lease permits include residential uses specific to on-site ranch operations,” the “final environmental impact statement” continues. “Most active beef and dairy cattle operations occur in the Point Reyes Peninsula Dairy Ranches Historic District and the Olema Valley Dairy Ranches Historic District, which are both listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”
“More than a century of change & modernization”
“The Point Reyes Peninsula Dairy Ranches Historic District,” the final environmental impact statement elaborates, “consists of 17 tenant-operated dairy ranches established by the Shafter and Howard families beginning in 1857.
“The Olema Valley Dairy Ranches Historic District includes 19 properties operated by tenants or families beginning in 1856.
“Together, these districts reflect more than a century of change and modernization in the industry, including the evolution from the original wood frame milking barns to the concrete Grade A sanitary barns of the 1940s.”
The impression the final environmental impact statement conveys, however, of continuous cattle ranching activity for 164 years is somewhat misleading.
NewspaperArchive coverage pertaining to Point Reyes makes little or no mention of cattle or dairy ranching during the fifteen years of the Great Depression and World War II.
Ranch boundaries not surveyed until 1951
There was at least one cattle rancher operating on Point Reyes from 1945 on, according to contemporary news coverage, but Point Reyes was apparently not actually surveyed to establish ranch boundaries until 1951.
Shipments of cattle from Point Reyes were occasionally reported, at numbers ranging from 17 to 106, mostly calves.
If the local ranchers were only selling 100-odd calves at a time, they were probably keeping only about the same number of milking cows, with some half-grown heifers as eventual milking line replacements.
The whole Point Reyes cattle herd, counting both cattle raised for beef and those kept for dairy use, would appear to have been perhaps 10% of the size of the herd now permitted by the National Park Service.
Cattle supposed to have been gone by 1987
Further, all the cattle were supposed to have been gone by 1987.
The farming and ranching families who were on Point Reyes when then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy designated the National Seashore by authorization of Congress were paid $50 million for their land, and were allowed to continue to use park land for continued cattle grazing for another 25 years, a time frame that expired 33 years ago.
Meanwhile, during the decades that cattle were first pastured on Point Reyes, beginning with Spanish ranchers circa 1830 and continuing through the post-California Gold Rush ranch establishments in 1856-1857, meat hunters shot the estimated half million tule elk of the north coastal and north central portions of California to the verge of extinction.
Tule elk were “the dominant grazers”
Smaller cousins of the Rocky Mountain elk and the Roosevelt elk found farther north, tule elk were “the dominant grazers” on the Point Reyes peninsula and in the Olema Valley at the time of first non-indigenous settlement, according to National Park Service literature.
By 1874, however, tule elk were believed to have been already lost, except for a small herd of not more than 30 found hiding in the swampier reaches of the Henry Miller ranch, near Bakersfield.
Miller and his heirs protected the elk and their habitat.
Eighteen tule elk were in 1974 transferred to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Baños, southeast of San Jose. Then, in 1978, two bucks and eight does from the Los Baños herd were successfully reintroduced to Tamales Point, at the northern end of Point Reyes.
Twenty years after that, in 1998, 28 tule elk were moved a dozen miles south to Limantour Beach, completing the Point Reyes herd restoration project.
Tomales Point elk trapped behind 8-foot fence
There are now 22 tule elk herds scattered throughout their original California habitat, of which the two Point Reyes herds are the largest.
But the Point Reyes tule elk herds are far from secure.
“The Tomales Point elk herd is trapped behind a fence on the peninsula to appease ranchers, confined in an area with scarce water during dry years,” points out Jeff Miller. “More than 250 elk, more than half of the Tomales herd, died during drought from 2012-2014.”
Similar losses could extinguish the Limantour herd, estimated to include 163 elk as of 2019.
Activists reportedly rallied by In Defense of Animals, headquartered in San Rafael, 20 miles southeast of the Point Reyes National Seashore, bootlegged water to the elk during the 2020 summer drought that preceded the Woodward fire.
Earth, air, fire & water
Point Reyes National Seashore acting superintendent Carey Fierabend and National Park Service wildlife ecologist Dave Press told Suzanne Rust and Anita Chabria of the Los Angeles Times that the water deliveries were unnecessary and illegal.
Countered In Defense of Animals communication director Fleur Dawes, pointing out that Point Reyes National Seashore harbors more cattle than there are tule elk in the world, “If the park service refuses to care for the animals that they are mandated by law to preserve, then others have to step in.”
Fire itself is also an omnipresent threat at Point Reyes, as in most of California. Much of the Point Reyes National Seashore has not been burned over within living memory, leaving dense accumulations of dry brush in wind-swept arroyos.
The last big wildfire on Point Reyes before the Woodward Fire was the Mount Vision Fire in October 1995. Begun by an incompletely extinguished campfire, the Mount Vision Fire destroyed 45 homes in Inverness Park, near the Point Reyes National Seashore headquarters.
Fallow & axis deer managed to extirpation
For more than 30 years before the tule elk reintroduction, and for more than 30 years afterward, Point Reyes also hosted European fallow deer and axis deer, brought from the Fleishacker Zoo in San Francisco between 1942 and 1954 by Vision Ranch owner Millard Ottinger, who had a standing deal with the zoo management to buy surplus deer.
Both the fallow deer and axis deer herds, whose combined numbers reportedly peaked at about 1,100 in 2007, have often been culled by National Park Service management, with encouragement from the Sierra Club and other conservationist foes of “non-native” wildlife, purportedly to make habitat available to tule elk, prevent overgrazing, and avoid conflict with ranchers, whose cattle conspicuously do most of the overgrazing.
The last of the axis deer are believed to have been shot in 2009.
Meanwhile, says the Point Reyes National Seashore web page, “In the fall of 2008, the Seashore began focusing solely on contraceptive methods to control the fallow deer population. The remaining fallow deer have not reproduced and have been allowed to live out their natural lives within the Seashore. The Seashore’s contraception program was one of the largest studies ever attempted with free-ranging wild deer.”
“Manage Yellowstone bison more like cattle”
Back in Montana, reported Brett French of the Billings Gazette on September 19, 2020, documents newly obtained through legal action by Buffalo Field Campaign show that “In May 2018, Yellowstone National Park superintendent Dan Wenk was ordered by then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to manage the park’s bison ‘more actively like cattle on a ranch,’ according to a park briefing statement.
“The Yellowstone briefing statement goes on to say, ‘Managing Yellowstone bison more intensively like livestock on a ranch would be a set-back for restoration and would likely lead to intense negative publicity, civil disobedience, litigation, and further attempts to list plains bison as threatened pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, which would constrain future management options.”
“Exaggerations to bolster livestock interests”
Wenk a month later was removed from his post, replaced in October 2018 by current Yellowstone National Park superintendent Cam Sholly.
Recalled French, “Before being appointed [by Donald Trump] to lead the Department of Interior, Zinke was Montana’s lone representative in Congress. He left his Interior post at the beginning of 2019.
“The documents released to Buffalo Field Campaign,” French continued, include an unpublished March 2018 scientific paper co-authored by three Yellowstone wildlife biologists, including chief park wildlife biologist P.J. White, bison manager Chris Geremia, and retired bison manager Rick Wallen.
White, Geremia, and Wallen argued, French summarized, that “declarations that expanded tolerance for bison managed similarly to elk would threaten the economic interest and viability of the livestock industry appear to be exaggerations designed to bolster special livestock interests through fears of reprisal.”
“Current management approach not serving the broader common good”
Explained French, “Unlike bison, who are not allowed to roam very far outside of Yellowstone, elk migrate freely into and out of the park. Elk also carry brucellosis, the same disease ranchers cite as a reason for keeping bison numbers low and holding the big animals close to Yellowstone, instead of allowing them to roam more freely like other wildlife.”
White, Geremia, and Wallen recommended that “managers evaluate relocating some bison captured for removal from the population to the upper Gallatin watershed,” remembering that “Yellowstone bison used this watershed into the 1990s, but have not been observed there in recent years and are unlikely to naturally recolonize this area.
“Releasing bison in the [upper Galatin] watershed would not substantially increase the risk of brucellosis transmission to livestock,” White, Geremia, and Wallen wrote, “because elk in the vicinity are [already] chronically infected with brucellosis.”
The bottom line, for White, Geremia, and Wallen, was that “The current management approach for Yellowstone bison is not serving the broader common good, but rather specific livestock interests based on perpetuated myths and misperceptions.”
“Bison herd managed for good of the livestock industry”
In short, Buffalo Field Campaign habitat coordinator Darrell Geist told French, “The herd is being managed for the good of the livestock industry.
Dan Bailey, National Parks Conservation Association program manager for Yellowstone, told French by email that since Zinke’s exit, there has been resumed progress on behalf of bison, via “the recently released Department of the Interior Bison Conservation Initiative 2020, outlining goals including conserving bison as wildlife.”
Observed French, “As the bison population has grown in the park, with the herd numbering more than 4,800 animals at last count, Montana officials and lawmakers have been able to force the Park Service to annually cull and slaughter hundreds of animals every winter,” to keep bison from migrating into Montana ranch land.
During the winter of 2019-2020, 442 bison were captured for slaughter.
“Another 105 were isolated for quarantine to see if they can be eventually transferred alive to Indian tribes,” French said.
According to Buffalo Field Campaign, 12,575 Yellowstone bison have been killed and another 540 have been captured to keep them out of Montana since 1985.