Cattle ranching at Point Reyes National Seashore was to end by 1987, but now 10 times more cattle crowd the habitat than before the land was “protected”
POINT REYES, California––The remains of at least 18 endangered tule elk at drought-parched Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California, 38 miles north of San Francisco, attest that the worst is happening there: tule elk are again dying of heat, thirst, and hunger, kept away from what by law is supposed to be protected tule elk habitat by fencing erected for the benefit of cattle ranchers.
Nine months after ANIMALS 24-7 on September 25, 2020 pointed out in depth and detail the failure of the National Park Service to protect the tule elk in a management plan amendment released six days earlier, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic attorneys Katherine Barnekow and Katherine A. Meyer on June 22, 2020 filed a lawsuit on behalf of the tule elk against Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, acting National Park Service director Shawn Benge, and Point Reyes National Seashore superintendent Craig Kenkel.
Co-plaintiffs include the Animal Legal Defense Fund, headquartered in Cotati, California, just 30 miles away, plus individual Point Reyes National Seashore visitors Jack Gescheidt, Laura Charlton, and Skyler Thomas.
293 tule elk at risk, after 152 died in 2020
Opens the lawsuit, without direct reference to the September 19, 2020 Point Reyes National Seashore management plan amendment, “Plaintiffs challenge the National Park Service’s failure to revise the 1980 General Management Plan for the Tomales Point portion of the Point Reyes National Seashore, where approximately 293 tule elk live confined behind an eight-foot-high fence that was erected decades ago to prevent the elk from competing for forage and water with the cattle that are permitted by the Park Service to graze on the park land outside the fence.
“Last year,” the lawsuit continues, “approximately 152 elk—more than a third of the total Tomales Point elk population of 445—died. During the previous drought, 183 elk died in 2013 and another 71 elk died in 2014.
“Violates statutory duties”
“Plaintiffs also challenge the failure of the Park Service to update and revise the 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan, mandated by Congress in 1976 ‘for tule elk restoration and conservation.”
“Plaintiffs further challenge recent decisions by the Park Service not to remove any portion of the Tomales Point fence that is preventing the elk from accessing adequate food and water, as well as the Park Service’s decision not to provide the elk with any supplemental food, and its very recent decision to provide water to some, but not all, of the elk at Tomales Point—in other words, its decision to continue to allow this protected wildlife to die of starvation and dehydration.”
Charges the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic lawsuit, “The Park Service’s failure to revise these critical management plans violates the agency’s statutory duties,” while “Its decision to deprive the elk of forage and water necessary to prevent the elk from dying of starvation and/or dehydration is also arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and otherwise not in accordance with law.
“Next likely victims will be birds, bobcats, foxes & coyotes”
“For all of these reasons,” the lawsuit says, “and because the tule elk are continuing to die horrific and preventable deaths in Tomales Point, plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief in the interests of protecting these magnificent animals and the public’s interest in continuing to observe, enjoy, study, and photograph them for many generations to come.”
Center for Biological Diversity spokesperson Jeff Miller warned, when the September 19, 2020 management plan amendment was first released, that it “would enshrine commercial cattle ranching in the California park at the expense of native wildlife and natural habitat,” called “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 extended for another 20 years the previous 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.
“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 September 19, 2020 document 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 34 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
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,” pointed 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 4,900-acre Woodward fire, which raged for half of August and most of September 2020
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, boasts 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.”