Ranchers, NPS square off over preserve’s wandering elk herd

By Emily Yehle | 05/11/2015 12:53 PM EDT

The Drakes Bay Oyster Co. no longer exists in Point Reyes National Seashore. Its buildings, tanks and docks are gone. So are oyster shuckers who once stood in rubber boots and aprons on the shores of a pristine estero. But the controversy over a private business in a national park is far from over. The National Park Service now faces its next battle in Point Reyes — this time over a free-roaming band of tule elk, and the ranches where they like to hang out.

The Drakes Bay Oyster Co. no longer exists in Point Reyes National Seashore. Its buildings, tanks and docks are gone. So are oyster shuckers who once stood in rubber boots and aprons on the shores of a pristine estero.

But the controversy over a private business in a national park is far from over. The National Park Service now faces its next battle in Point Reyes — this time over a free-roaming band of tule elk, and the ranches where they like to hang out.

The elk are a headache for ranchers, who say the wild herd breaks fences, eats grass and drinks water on the land they lease for cattle. For years, they have asked the Park Service to control the population, either through relocation, fencing or culling.


The issue got little public attention until last month, when the service released data showing that hundreds of elk in a fenced preserve died while the free-roaming herds became larger. NPS blamed the deaths partly on California’s drought and the lack of water sources within the preserve (Greenwire, April 17).

The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity seized the opportunity to shape the national story, releasing a press release blaming the elks’ deaths on the preserve’s fence. It called for NPS to allow all elk to roam free — and it accused ranchers of trying to "dictate" park policies on the wild herds.

To ranchers, the issue is one of fairness: NPS introduced the free-roaming elk almost 20 years ago, and it should ensure that the animals don’t disturb existing ranches. But CBD asserts that the ranches are the ones that are out of place, as businesses within a national park.

"I think there should be a discussion of whether ranching continues and if it continues, under what conditions," Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate at CBD, said in a recent interview. "I don’t think that commercial cow grazing should take priority over wildlife protection. If there’s a conflict, then the commercial leases are the ones that should have to be altered."

The argument echoes those leveled at Drakes Bay Oyster Co. during its yearslong — and ultimately losing — battle to renew its lease within Point Reyes.

Unlike the oyster farm, the ranchers have the public backing of NPS, which aims to issue 20-year leases under a new management plan.

But CBD is framing the conversation differently: Do ranches belong at all?

Wandering elk

The ranches have always occupied an awkward place in Point Reyes. Like the oyster farm, they are family businesses that operate in a national park that boasts rocky cliffs and breathtaking views. Cows, sheep and chickens occupy plots that collectively comprise 18,000 acres, sandwiched between a wilderness area and an elk preserve.

Without them, the park would not exist. They were integral to a compromise for protecting Point Reyes from developers, agreeing to sell their land to the Park Service in return for leases. Congress created Point Reyes in 1962, specifically including the preservation of ranches in a "pastoral zone."

Today, more than 20 families hold special-use permits for cattle and dairy operations on ranches whose histories stretch back more than 150 years. Known as the "alphabet ranches," most are identified by a letter of the alphabet that identified their place on the Point Reyes headlands.

Their relationship with NPS has frayed in recent years, partly because of how the agency handled its expulsion of the oyster farm (Greenwire, Sept. 13, 2012). Not only did that farm neighbor the ranches — and share some of their history — but it was most recently owned by fellow rancher Kevin Lunny.

But the elk have been their main concern for years. In 1998, NPS decided to establish a free-roaming herd in the park’s wilderness area. A year later, the elk began moving into the pastoral zone.

The 1998 elk management plan is impressively vague on how to handle such an incursion. Instead, it deals mostly with how to manage the elk in the fenced-in Pierce Point Elk Preserve, recommending a hands-off approach.

NPS acknowledges in the plan that elk can damage ranches, recommending that the preserve’s fence stay intact. It also mentions that the new free-roaming herd may conflict with cattle and eat crops on ranch land. But it mostly focuses on the potential for damage to nearby landowners, promising to recapture or "destroy problem animals" if the elk damage fences or crops.

The plan is at the center of the debate between NPS and ranchers. Ranchers say the agency has the authority to remove the elk from the pastoral zone, while NPS insists it requires an entirely new management plan.

Dave Press, an NPS ecologist, said the agency has heard "very strong arguments from some individuals" that the plan provides guidance on how to handle elk on ranches.

"We fundamentally disagree," he said. "The 1998 plan does not give us authority to take any significant management actions as has been recommended, such as lethal removal."

Such actions will be considered — along with building a new fence or relocating animals — in an upcoming 20-year ranch management plan. NPS officials say the plan will lay the groundwork for long-term leases and consistent agricultural policy in the park.

‘Hands-off’ approach

Meanwhile, the free-roaming elk herd grows.

More than 90 now occupy the former "D Ranch," often crossing over into the adjacent ranches. About 120 more are within the wilderness area, with about 30 bulls who spend most of their time on an adjacent ranch.

Park Service officials have taken some management actions that they believe fit in with the 1998 plan, such as offering to mend fences and "haze" elk off ranches. A month ago, they experimented with relocation, moving two young males and a female to the wilderness area. Within 10 days, the males were back.

NPS has also provided water in two 5,000-gallon tanks to the ranch herd in what they say is an effort to lure them away from ranches.

The fenced-in elk, however, are left mostly alone. The number of animals fluctuates, as predicted, depending on conditions and calving. The park has pointed to a carrying capacity of about 350 animals.

The latest count, however, showed the largest decline so far, from 540 animals in 2012 to 286 at the end of 2014. Though it has not studied the reason, Press said California’s drought likely contributed.

"I think it is reasonable to conclude — considering we are in the worst drought in California history — that the lack of water and poor forage condition contributed to such a large decline," he said.

Press said the 1998 plan was clear that NPS should take a "hands-off" approach to managing the preserve’s elk. But now the agency is considering taking an action not outlined in the plan: providing water.

So far, it looks like it won’t be necessary, with conditions improving. But CBD believes the answer is tearing down the fence so the elk can find water on their own — and blames the ranchers for its existence.

Press disputed that.

"We know that there is a limitation on availability of food and water. Our elk management plan clearly outlines those limitations. It also clearly accepted that tule elk fence and rejected attempts to remove that fence," Press said, emphasizing that the fence had broad public support. "The concept that ranchers are dictating park policy by ensuring that the fence stays in place is inaccurate."

‘Blood in the water’

As part of the new ranch management plan — and 20-year leases — ranchers are asking for a variety of authorities, including diversifying the animals they raise and the occasional use of herbicides.

But elk are the common thread. In a public comment during the scoping process, the family on the H ranch outlines the costly replacement of cattle fencing and the loss of feed to elk.

"[F]or generations we have gone to great lengths financially … to improve the productivity of our land for our cattle to have added natural feed," they wrote. "We need this feed for our operation to remain financially viable."

Most ranchers are reluctant to talk to the press, and attempts to reach out to them for this article were unsuccessful.

But at a recent hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee — which mostly focused on the oyster controversy — Lunny described them as "terrified," anxiously awaiting the leases that will give them more stability. Many are now under one-year authorizations as NPS develops its overall management plan.

Lunny, accompanied to the hearing by a few fellow ranchers, alluded to an atmosphere of mistrust as the Park Service begins an environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act that will, in part, address elk management.

The agency also used the NEPA process during its consideration of whether to renew his oyster farm’s lease, launching a $1.5 million process that was plagued with controversy. But then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar largely sidestepped the resulting environmental impact statement to close the farm, instead focusing on a legal argument that could have been made years earlier (Greenwire, Dec. 5, 2012).

"Our concern is that it is the same people, the same scientists, the same staff who very much abused the NEPA process with the oyster farm," Lunny, who sued Interior over his farm’s closure, told lawmakers last month (E&E Daily, April 30). He later added: "The ranchers have asked to continue their way of life — the same activity that pre-existed the park for over 100 years. We want to farm. Now we’re faced with another process that has every potential of harming our way of life."

Miller, of CBD, said he doubts that the elk pose much of a financial burden to the ranches. Ranchers, he said, "smell blood in the water" and are taking advantage of a Park Service that is afraid to end their leases.

"The idea that somehow that the elk have to be controlled — why?" he said. "What evidence is out there that the elk have to be controlled?"

But Ethan Lane of Policy Strategies, who wrote a recent report on the elk for the ranchers, said the elk’s impact goes beyond the trampling of fences and destruction of infrastructure.

"The larger impact is what can’t be easily seen," he said in an email. "When pastures are managed and rotated as tightly as they are at Point Reyes, an extra 30, 40, or 50 head of 500lb animals eating the critical new growth grass while a pasture is recovering can render it unusable, which makes responsible range management almost impossible without costly additional feed."

NPS officials say that such concerns are exactly what the new management plan — and the NEPA process — is meant to address. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), whose district includes Point Reyes and California’s West Marin region, urged the ranchers and lawmakers to leave the baggage of the oyster farm behind them.

"In West Marin, we’re trying to move on and we’re trying to rebuild a relationship of trust and collaboration between the national park and ranchers and dairymen and the environmental community," Huffman said at last month’s hearing. "Most people don’t want the divisive oyster dispute to poison what has historically been a harmonious relationship between these groups."