Tule elk graze on grass in a field at Point Reyes National Seashore Elk Preserve on April 19, 2015, in Point Reyes Station, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Known for its seaside bluffs and dense summer fog, Point Reyes National Seashore is a landscape of rolling coastal prairie blending into forests and marshlands, a sanctuary for hundreds of plants and animals and a destination for migrating birds and marine life.
Just a one-hour drive from San Francisco, the 71,000-acre peninsula serves as a haven for native California species like snowy plovers, red-legged frogs, coho salmon and tule elk.
The tule elk are one of the primary attractions of the park, which sees over 2 million visitors annually, and they can be easy to spot in the zones where they're preserved.
The elks' beauty and majesty is hard to miss; one frequent visitor to the park described their strange, high-pitched bugle as "otherworldly." Once on the brink of extinction, tule elk were reintroduced into Point Reyes in 1978. Now, hundreds of elk live in three herds throughout the park.
But Point Reyes is also home to about 20 ranches that have operated in the park since the mid-1800s. And the tule elk are at the center of a major battle between ranchers, who say the elk are overpopulated and disruptive to their operations, and animal and environmental activists, who think that ranching has degraded the land, leaving it to resemble a "lunar landscape," as one activist said. The park, the activists argue, should prohibit ranching and preserve the land entirely as wilderness to protect the elk and other species.
Conflict between ranchers and environmentalists is not uncommon in the West, where wildlife and agriculture often collide. Wild horses in Utah compete with cattle for resources; black-tailed prairie dogs in Wyoming are shot and poisoned by ranchers who consider them "pests"; and wolves, reintroduced in Western states in the 1980s, are often blamed by ranchers for killing livestock.
The tule elk in Point Reyes have virtually no natural predators, so management of their population is left up to the National Park Service, which is in the process of implementing a wildlife management plan that includes killing elk in one of the three herds to control their numbers, a process known as culling.
One of the prime considerations for how to manage the tule elk is how their numbers affect the ranchers, who sold their land to the government when the park was established in 1962. Many stayed on the land and continued ranching under renewable five-year permits.
Environmental groups sued the National Park Service in 2016 for planning to extend leases for the ranchers from five to 20 years without analyzing the environmental impact, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The groups reached a settlement agreement in 2017 that required the park service to solicit public input and amend its 1980 general management plan with an Environmental Impact Statement before issuing any 20-year leases.
The park service considered six alternatives for its amended plan, ranging from eliminating ranching in the park altogether — an option favored in over 90% of the 7,600 public comments submitted to the agency — to the plan the park service says it prefers, which includes extending ranchers' leases and limiting the population of the Drakes Beach herd of elk to 120 animals to prevent them from eating cattle feed, bothering cows and causing other disturbances. If the population were to exceed 120, the park service would begin culling. At the end of 2019, there were 138 tule elk in the Drakes Beach population.
On Sept. 18, 2020, the park service released its final Environmental Impact Statement, officially announcing its decision to go with its preferred option. That initiated a 30-day waiting period for the park service to conduct its final consultations with other agencies. That period ends on Sunday, after which a "Record of Decision" can be issued, finalizing the amended management plan and allowing leases to be extended and culling to begin.
A Serengeti of Wildlife
Laura Cunningham, a wildlife biologist and California director at Western Watersheds Project, likes to picture what the Point Reyes peninsula might have been like 500 years ago: filled with huge herds of tule elk grazing on lush green coastal prairies while coho salmon swam in the creeks and pods of whales passed by off the coast.
"I imagine it as a place of just riches of biodiversity," she said. "It must have been just a Serengeti of wildlife."
In the late 1800s, tule elk were thought to no longer exist, hunted into extinction by settlers. But in 1874, a rancher discovered a herd of fewer than 30 tule elk on his land near Bakersfield, California. The herd was preserved, and now 5,700 tule elk live in about 22 herds around the state.
In 1978, 10 tule elk were introduced into Point Reyes National Seashore, fenced in at Tomales Point on the northernmost end of the peninsula to keep them off ranches. Twenty years later, 28 elk from the Tomales Point herd were relocated to Limantour Beach, about 20 miles south of Tomales Point on the east side of Drakes Estero, a large estuary in the center of the peninsula, establishing a second, free-ranging herd. From there, several of the elk migrated to Drakes Beach, on the west side of Drakes Estero, where a third herd of tule elk in Point Reyes now live.
The 2020 Environmental Impact Statement addresses how to manage the Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach herds, including the Drakes Beach culling plan.
The National Park Service looked into moving the elk somewhere else before settling on a lethal solution for reducing the population, said Melanie Gunn, park service outreach coordinator for Point Reyes National Seashore. The park service considered relocating individuals from the Drakes Beach herd to somewhere outside of Point Reyes, but tule elk within the park are known to have Johne's disease — a highly contagious and fatal bacterial infection that occurs among ruminant animals. The symptoms of the disease often do not appear until several months after an animal is infected. The elk could not be relocated without risking the spread of the disease to herds outside the park. Tule elk may have caught the disease from cattle in Point Reyes, and they can only be effectively tested for it after death.
When culling does begin — and it will, unless the Record of Decision does not come through — it will be conducted by the National Park Service and other conservation officials to ensure that genetic diversity and sex ratio are taken into account when selecting which individual elk to kill, especially considering the entire population descended from fewer than 30 individuals.
"It will be specific, not random," Gunn said.
Driving through the ranching district — 22,000 acres designated as a national historic district on the National Register of Historic Places — the smell of cow feces is distinctive. In some parts of the park during mid-October, scrub grass coats the landscape in a golden brown color; in other parts, hundreds of cattle stand on muddy land devoid of much vegetation.
Ranchers operate in the park under one of two types of leasing agreements: a special permit that limits their tenancy to five years, or a so-called reservation of use and occupancy, which gives ranchers use of the land for up to 25 years or, in some cases, for as long as the rancher is alive.
Bill Niman, who operates a beef ranch with about 300 cattle at the southern end of Point Reyes, has a lease that extends for the rest of his life. The deal is similar to ownership, in that he pays property taxes and maintains his facilities, but has some restrictions; for example, he can't sell the property.
Niman and his wife, Nicolette Hahn Niman, a former environmental lawyer and the author of a book defending small-scale, grass-fed beef farms, practice rotational grazing on their land. The couple move their cattle from one patch of land to another to allow time for the land to rest between grazing periods. This keeps the landscape full of diverse plants and helps the soil sequester carbon, they said.
"What we're trying to do is mirror nature and manage the land in the way that nature would if humans were not interfering," Niman said.
Located just north of Bolinas on the south end of the park, far from any tule elk herd, Hahn Niman said they don't have an issue with elk on their ranch, thanks to park management.
But on some ranches, elk consume grass and supplemental cattle feed, like hay and alfalfa. Some ranchers have reported elk eating this supplemental food, but "it has not yet been identified as a significant or widespread problem," the final Environmental Impact Statement said.
And Hahn Niman said she has heard about cases of elk creating more serious disturbance, with dozens of the animals entering barns and eating cattle feed, or acting aggressively toward cows. She spoke publicly on behalf of ranchers during the 2016 lawsuit.
"[Ranchers] have had a number of their heifers that have been injured or even had to be put down because they were mounted by large male tule elk," Hahn Niman said. "It's weird stuff like this that I didn't understand until I talked directly with ranchers involved."
She emphasized that ranchers love seeing tule elk and other wildlife in the park. Ranchers, she said, wanted the park to be established, and without the ranchers, the land, so near the Bay Area, would have instead been developed into prime real estate. But without wolves and bears and hardly any mountain lions, she said, the elk have to be managed and their population needs to be controlled.
"You don't have the robust population of natural predators that once existed here; they're almost entirely gone," she said. "The only remaining predator really is the human."
A Banned Volunteer
Diana Oppenheim volunteered for three years in Point Reyes National Seashore — a place she calls "literal magic." She guided a monthly group that would start the day removing invasive species from the park's sandy coastal dunes, and then led the group in a yoga class on the beach.
Oppenheim said she was shocked when she started to hear rumors that the National Park Service was planning to cull the Drakes Beach herd.
"I was a very heavily involved volunteer; I was there all the time and I didn't know this was happening," Oppenheim said. "There was a big lack of public awareness around this issue, and I felt like if people knew, we could change the course of what was going to happen."
She started ForElk.org to increase awareness of the park service's management plan, putting up tables at grocery stores and farmers markets and approaching visitors at the park. Soon, Oppenheim was organizing protests. In August 2019, the park service opened its 45-day public comment period.
As the momentum of the movement accelerated, Oppenheim also made her views clear on her social media accounts. The National Park Service, she said, asked her to remove all references to her working as a volunteer in Point Reyes, in order to protect the agency's neutrality on the issue. When she refused, Oppenheim — once named the park's "volunteer of the year" — was banned from volunteering in Point Reyes National Seashore, she said.
"That only fueled my fire," Oppenheim added.
In late September, she and other activists in the Bay Area banded together to organize a demonstration. Nearly 300 people showed up to protest the culling plan and call for the ranches to be removed from the park.
"They're going to actually kill these elk that have been brought back from extinction in order to appease these ranchers," Oppenheim said.
A Crucial Role
The purpose of Point Reyes National Seashore — stated at the top of the legislation that created it — is to "save and preserve, for purposes of public recreation, benefit and inspiration" the undeveloped seashore.
Nowhere, activists say, does it mention the preservation of ranching. In fact, said Jack Gescheidt, an activist with the TreeSpirit Project, ranching is contradictory to the park's purpose.
"You can either have large scale dairy and cattle operations in an area, or a national park," he said, "you can't have both."
Gunn, however, disagreed. She said the park and the ranches have coexisted since the park's establishment in 1962, and they will continue to do so.
In 2019, a congressional statement said multigenerational ranching is important economically and ecologically in Point Reyes and is "fully consistent with Congress's intent for the management of Point Reyes National Seashore."
Ranching, Gunn said, has been recognized by Congress as being "part of the fabric of Point Reyes National Seashore. It's part of our responsibility to maintain."
Hahn Niman said ranching can and should coexist with all wildlife in Point Reyes through regenerative practices.
"Ranching should be minimizing the use of chemicals and should be always attentive to mirroring natural systems," she said, adding that ranchers should be "creating a vibrant space here for countless wild animals that are in fact living here."
Elk biologist Julie Phillips said that tule elk are a vital part of the Point Reyes ecosystem, and can be considered a keystone species, because plants in the ecosystem rely on them to disperse seeds and maintain the native environment.
Phillips — who is opposed to ranching in Point Reyes — said she has observed native grasses return and landscapes restored after tule elk have been reintroduced in other areas around California.
If cattle are removed from Point Reyes, Phillips said, tule elk "will help restore that degraded land, and the elk will play a critical role in bringing back native habitat."
Unlike so many species that went extinct after European settlement, tule elk got a second chance at survival. In an era where climate change is threatening to demolish Earth's ecosystems, Oppenheim said, a biological hot spot like Point Reyes should be easy to protect.
"We're facing a severe loss of biodiversity on the planet," Oppenheim said, and preservation "should be a no brainer in some of the most protected lands of the world."
She added: "Point Reyes is a gem and should absolutely be protected and restored."
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