Point Reyes tule elk plan backs ranch­ers

Park Ser­vice pro­poses manag­ing herd by re­movals or killings

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - BAY AREA - By Pe­ter Fim­rite

The roundup and pos­si­ble killing of the tule elk that charm tourists in the Point Reyes Na­tional Seashore inched closer to re­al­ity this week as the Na­tional Park Ser­vice be­gan an en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view of a pro­posal to ex­tend and even in­crease agri­cul­ture in the park.

The pro­tec­tions for agri­cul­ture along the rugged coast of Marin County would come at the ex­pense of the elk, which were rein­tro­duced to the seashore in 1978 af­ter they nearly went ex­tinct.

The Park Ser­vice, which ad­min­is­ters 28,000 acres of agri­cul­tural land in the Golden Gate Na­tional Re­cre­ation Area and Point Reyes seashore, has pro­posed new 20year leases for beef and dairy ranches at the seashore and “man­age­ment” of the wild elk herd, which has been com­pet­ing with cat­tle for for­age.

The con­tro­ver­sial plan, hailed by ranch­ers and lam­basted by en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, would honor a com­mit­ment to agri­cul­ture made af­ter the own­ers of the his­toric ranches in Point Reyes sup­ported cre­ation of the park more than a half cen­tury ago.

But the Park Ser­vice’s pref­er­ence, out of five al­ter­na­tives in the en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view, would call for elk — once the pop­u­la­tion reaches a cer­tain point — to be re­moved from land they now share with ranch­ers and dairy farm­ers as agri­cul­tural uses are ex­tended to

ad­di­tional pur­poses, like rais­ing chick­ens.

The orig­i­nal elk herd, in a fenced area at Pierce Point, is al­ready at or near ca­pac­ity, so any plan to thin the herd would re­quire the mas­sive an­i­mals to be taken some­where else or killed. Ranch­ers have also pro­posed ster­il­iza­tion or adding more fences.

“What we are propos­ing is a com­pro­mise be­tween no ranch­ing and no elk,” said Me­lanie Gunn, the out­reach co­or­di­na­tor for the 71,028acre seashore. “We think that ranch­ing and elk at Point Reyes Na­tional Seashore can work well to­gether.”

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups don’t see it that way.

“I don’t think evict­ing na­tive elk that we spent decades and decades try­ing to bring back is the way the Park Ser­vice in­tended to man­age pub­lic lands,” said Jeff Miller, a con­ser­va­tion ad­vo­cate for the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity, which has been fight­ing, along with the Marin-based Re­source Re­newal In­sti­tute, to give the elk free range.

Al­low­ing ranch­ers to raise chick­ens and other farm an­i­mals would also draw bob­cats, coy­otes and other preda­tors, he said.

“That‘s a guar­an­teed recipe for con­flict with wildlife,” Miller said, “and the ranch­ers are go­ing to be lob­by­ing to take care of that wildlife, too, so where does it end?”

Miller op­poses the ex­ten­sion of the five-year leases, which were agreed upon as part of a set­tle­ment of a law­suit with three en­vi­ron­men­tal groups last year.

The park’s pro­posal is es­sen­tially the same one out­lined in a bill cospon­sored by Rep. Jared Huff­man, D-San Rafael, that now awaits Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion. Given that Huff­man’s co-spon­sor is Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s well-doc­u­mented an­tipa­thy for wildlife pro­tec­tion and sup­port of profit-mak­ing en­ter­prises on pub­lic land, it is no won­der en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists fear the free-roam­ing elk are on the way out.

It is a wrench­ing dilemma be­cause the tule elk, which sport mas­sive can­de­labra-like antlers and can weigh up to 800 pounds, are a sym­bol of con­ser­va­tion suc­cess at the seashore. Many of the 3 mil­lion an­nual vis­i­tors to the park come specif­i­cally to see the mag­nif­i­cent crea­tures.

It is also a con­flict be­tween two al­most sa­cred Bay Area en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cepts — sus­tain­able or­ganic farm­ing and na­tive wildlife con­ser­va­tion.

Tule elk once were abun­dant across North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, with about 500,000 stretch­ing from the lush flood­plains of the Cen­tral Val­ley to the grassy coastal hills.

But the elk herds were hunted re­lent­lessly af­ter the Gold Rush, and their habi­tat was con­verted to crops and cat­tle graz­ing land. They were thought to be ex­tinct in 1874, when wealthy landowner Henry Miller dis­cov­ered a dozen or so in Kern County. The herd grew, prompt­ing rein­tro­duc­tion in sev­eral ar­eas of Cal­i­for­nia. Hunt­ing the an­i­mals was banned in 1971.

In 1978, 10 tule elk were moved to the 2,600acre To­ma­les Point Elk Re­serve at Pierce Point. They did so well that the Park Ser­vice moved 28 an­i­mals to the Li­man­tour Beach area in 1999. Within two years, the freerang­ing herd had split up, with some ap­par­ently swim­ming across Drakes Es­tero, where they be­gan graz­ing among the cows near the his­toric ranches.

It is a dilemma for the Park Ser­vice, which made a com­mit­ment to pre­serve agri­cul­ture in ex­change for the sale of ranch land in 1962, when the na­tional seashore was cre­ated. Then-In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ken Salazar re­it­er­ated that pledge in 2012.

The Park Ser­vice leases the fields to mostly or­ganic dairy ranch­ers, who have com­plained about fences be­ing ru­ined and cows be­ing in­tim­i­dated by the pow­er­ful beasts. But the big­gest prob­lem, they say, is that the elk gob­ble up the rye grasses that cows rely upon. It’s es­pe­cially bad for the small dairies be­cause at least 30 per­cent of a cow’s diet must be for­age ma­te­rial or they lose their or­ganic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

The Park Ser­vice this week ini­ti­ated a 30-day pub­lic com­ment pe­riod that will end Nov. 30. The plan is to have a draft en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact state­ment by next sum­mer and a fi­nal plan by early 2020.

Gunn said all op­tions are be­ing con­sid­ered, in­clud­ing no ac­tion, but park bi­ol­o­gists are clearly lean­ing to­ward man­age­ment of the elk herd, which is per­mit­ted be­cause they were never listed un­der the En­dan­gered Species Act. In that case, Gunn said, the choices have been nar­rowed to round­ing up the sur­plus elk and re­lo­cat­ing them out­side the park, pos­si­bly on Amer­i­can In­dian land, driv­ing them out or hir­ing hunters to kill them.

Pho­tos by Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle 2014

Tule elk graze on the his­toric C Ranch, a work­ing or­ganic dairy on the Point Reyes Na­tional Seashore, in 2014.

C Ranch dairy cows share the seashore graz­ing land with the thriv­ing tule elk herd, which has grown since 1978 to near ca­pac­ity for the land.

Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle 2014

A group of tule elk graze on the C Ranch, a work­ing or­ganic dairy whose cows share the seashore graz­ing land with the elk herd.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.