The Tule Elk hang on by a thread while insanity reigns over Point Reyes National Seashore
Updated: Nov 13, 2022
Photo (Douglas Zimmerman/ Marin Independent Journal)
By Staci-lee Sherwood
In the 1700s the Tule Elk had a healthy population of nearly half a million that roamed freely throughout California. Just a century later the elk were nearly hunted to extinction. As settlers moved west in search of land and gold the elk were heavily hunted for their hides and meat. Many were driven away from their habitat to make way for ranches, homes and farms. For years both native and non native herbivores grazed the grasslands which since been broken into segments of private and public land. Years of conservation efforts slowly brought back the species from the brink of extinction. The battle between native wildlife and non native livestock on public lands has been raging for decades. The issue is a complex one.
Battle lines have been drawn between ranchers, who want to continue having their private livestock graze on public land for pennies, and those who feel National Parks belong to all people and should be kept as a haven for wildlife. This has been crystallized at Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) which is part of the National Park system. Most American will be surprised to learn that eleven national parks have private ranchers grazing on their public lands. This is more than whether or not the Tule elk should remain fenced in at Tomales Point. The core issue is how our national parks should be used in the future and if they should be used at all by the private sector.
The biggest argument on the ranchers side is that livestock has been grazing the area long before it became a park in 1962. Congress identified three reasons for establishing the PRNS One reason was natural beauty, another for scientific and historic interest, and then recreation. At the time there was pressure to develop the land for residential use. A continuation of agriculture was said to be a practical necessity for saving the 71,000-acres from developers. Many ranchers were led to think they would be allowed to graze their cattle inside the park forever and so far they have. “Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has written that federal public lands livestock grazing ‘is the most damaging use of public land,’ and reams of scientific studies support that assertion.”
The history of ranching in this park has a checkered past. Private ranchers had grazed their cows in this area for decades. When it became part of the national park system that should have ended the privilege of ranchers but it did not. Areas designated as national parks and wildlife refuges should never have any human activity deemed harassing to wildlife or destructive to the landscape such as ranching, mining and drilling. These activities defy the essence and intent of designating an area as a national park. The very definition of refuge is free from harassment.
Most Americans would be surprised to learn how much ‘public land’ has been leased to these private industries. At some point the public will cease to have access to the public land they pay for once it’s all been leased to the private sector. Once PRNS came to be part of the national park system all grazing should have ended. The first group of Tule elk were relocated there in 1978 in the hopes of expanding the state population. The decision to put elk in an area that already allowed grazing cows was ill thought out and ripe for conflict, this led to the original herd being placed behind a fence at Tomales Point.
Making things worse was letting the cattle stay. To appease ranchers concessions were made to allow for the herd at Tomales Point to remain behind a fence. In the 1990s more elk were relocated to the park but remained free roaming. Should their herds increase to an arbitrary unacceptable number the ‘excess’ elk will be shot. The continuation of ranching has set the stage for the legal battles we face today. Here is a timeline for when the elk were relocated to the park
The notion that just because we have always done this we should continue is not a legally or ethically valid argument. This justification is used anywhere we have this conflict. This same argument was used just a couple of centuries ago about slavery and we see how that turned out. The PRNS has three herds of which the largest is fenced in and is the main herd in question. This is the Tomales Point herd and the focus of controversy with a population that has decreased by nearly 50% in the last two years down from445 to 221. It’s the only herd that was placed in the fenced in area in 1978 where they are kept from roaming where the cows graze. The other two herds are free roaming. The Drakes Beach herd numbers at about 139 and the Limantour herd is down to about 155.
I spoke with Jack Gescheidt, founder of TreeSpirit Project whose group is one of the ones leading the fight to save the elk. “The average Point Reyes park visitor has no idea there are over 5,000 private cows living in this unique oceanside national park unit. Cows outnumber its rare Tule elk population 9 to 1; under 550 elk, and declining from confinement. “ This small number of a once nearly extinct species takes a backseat to the private owned cows. As we’ve seen for decades the damage done to natural resources can overwhelm even the most seemingly stable landscape. As Gescheidt says “This many beef and dairy cows are Point Reyes’ largest source of land, water, air and atmospheric pollution. The private, for-profit cattle operations generate more greenhouse trapping gases, much of it methane, than all of this public park’s over two million annual visitor vehicle’s tailpipe emissions."
The National Park Service (NPS) fenced in the Tomales Point elk herd keeping these critically endangered animals on a mere 2600 acres. The cattle freely roam 28,000 acres of grassland that naturally provides water from creeks and ponds. During droughts the elk barely have any natural water at Tomales Point. The question of providing water for the elk has pitted the park service and the public against each other. Many elk have died trying to escape the enclosure while others have perished when their antlers have gotten stuck in the old rusty mesh fencing effectively grounding them without a rescue.
Fencing in wild animals on their native habitat is treating them like zoo animals. This is a legal and ethical grey area, if not a violation, that goes against the NPS whose mission is to provide a safe haven for wildlife that live there. Preferential treatment of livestock over native wildlife wasn’t always the case .In 2012 the NPS decided against renewing a lease for an oyster farm situated in an estuary designated as a ‘potential wilderness.’ The debate over renewing their lease or closing it down caused a rift in surrounding communities as neighbors took sides. It was decided the farm caused ecological damage to the park and was shut down. It was agreed by the park service that the oyster farm caused damage that far outweighed any benefits but ranching always gets a pass.
Map showing the land for cows VS land for elk to graze in.
The updated NPS management plan for the park shows it would allow park staff to shoot elk from the Drakes Beach herd to keep the population at a maximum of 140 elk. Park staff originally proposed limiting the herd to a mere 120. Click here to read the plan https://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=74313.. Point Reyes Superintendent Craig Kenkel said the plan “strikes the right balance of recognizing the importance of ranching while also modernizing management approaches to protect park resources and the environment.”
This statement appears to be in stark contrast with what most of the park visitors want according to Gescheidt “A survey of over 7,600 park visitors, commissioned by the National Park Service, revealed that 91% want Tule elk in the park, but not cows — results ignored in developing the park’s new 2021 General Management Plan which favors ranchers, keeps half the seashore’s elk trapped inside a small, fenced Reserve, and now allows shooting to death some elk living outside the Reserve.”
One has to wonder how the park will be protected from a non native species we know causes massive damage to the water, land and planet. The NPS claimed years of Congressional support for beef and dairy ranching on public lands. It should be noted that the public’s approval rating for Congress has been at record lows for years The majority of Americans do not support ranching or hunting on public lands and certainly not in national parks. The national parks were suppose to be exempt from this type of exploitation yet the NPS sees fit to make up their own agenda defying taxpayer’s wishes who pay their salaries. The public is waking up to the overtaking of public land by private companies for a nominal fee, when they decide to pay it.
Theresa Harlan for Indigenous Access to Homelands on Public Lands Photo: Tony Sehgal, Silver Reaction Media
Problems worsened when the “Grazing Improvement Act of 2012 lengthened the amount of time cattle ranchers could graze in national parks. For PRNS leases have been extended to twenty years. In terms of politics that covers the span of several Governors and Presidents. If you follow politics you know how loathe politicians, even those at the highest level, are to repeal what their predecessor approved. History bears this out. Too many laws have stayed on the books due more to weak character of those that govern than because of their usefulness. As stated in an article from 2012 at National Parks Conservation Association website ‘as one national park superintendent told us, “There are commercial beef cattle in the park right now eating endangered plants that, if you dug one up, I’d arrest you for it.”
Click here to read the rest of the article
Click here to read more about ranching at PRNS. https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/2021/09/op-ed-ranchers-dodge-reforms-point-reyes-national-seashore-yet-still-complain?fbclid=IwAR2LMUjU_i4piF_x8HkjqGreiSYwX_sH3S7ltfWCpcmu9LjQOnRkelVYEv0
A stunning Tule Elk bull looks on
Photo credit Treespirit project
In June 2021 Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic filed a lawsuit on behalf of the non profit Animal Legal Defense Fund and three bay area residents. According to attorney Kate Barnekow “If it weren’t for the Park Service still relying on a 41-year-old management plan for Tomales Point instead of updating the plan in a ‘timely manner’ as required by federal law, we would not be facing this crisis with the Tule elk who are dying slow, horrific deaths every day,” said Barnekow. “Emergency legal action is now required to simply get the agency to do its job.”
There has been an increase in lawsuits filed on behalf of citizens to force the government to enforce the law. What does this say about democracy when legal action necessitates government employees to do their job? According to Barnekow one of the issues that made her decide to take the case was that she “Thought this was an interesting case because of the Intersection between the impacts of wildlife because of the park service’s clear deference to the agricultural interests at play.” She went on to add that this is a “stark case in that the park service so clearly neglected its duty to act for so long.” A final decision will most likely not come for several weeks.
In august of 2021 hundreds of volunteers hiked several miles carrying water for the elk who were dying from lack of water, and food, due to drought conditions. It should be noted if the elk were not fenced in they would be free to migrate where food and fresh water could be found. The fence forbids this natural survival behavior. This story was covered in the news finally bringing attention to the dire situation. The NPS had no comment citing litigation as their reason for staying silent. Click here to read and watch the story https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2021/08/28/volunteers-carry-water-miles-to-help-struggling-point-reyes-tule-elk-survive-drought/
A bull elk knee deep in mud struggles to find fresh water in the fenced in area
Photo credit Jack Gescheidt
Across the country native wildlife are being removed from their ancestral home. It wasn’t that long ago when a National Park or Seashore offered the best protection for wildlife living within their boundaries. Over the years that safety net has been removed and priority has shifted from protecting native wildlife to openly killing them in several national parks. While each park has their own justification for these removals what is happening at Point Reyes National Seashore truly defines insanity and cruelty. Another solution would be to relocate some of the elk to any number of parks where herds have settled in a sustainable habitat. A question for the park service is wouldn’t this be more humane that just shooting ‘excess’ elk ?
A Tule Elk bull walks by the fence that keeps him and his herd in while cows graze on the other side.
A small group grazes near the ocean
For nearly a century areas of land designated as a National Park unit was a safe haven for animals that called them home. Freedom to forage, breed and raise their young without fear of hunters, poachers, trappers or miners served thousands of species. That has now changed as the political will of the ranching and mining industries wield a greater influence over government. All public land seems to be up for grabs to the highest bidder. As the Tule Elk, Bison, Mountain Goats, wild Horses, Burros and Wolves are fast being exterminated to make room for millions of cows and sheep the landscape is forever changing and not for the better.
A shocking new assault is taking shape inside what used to be a safe haven for wildlife, trophy hunts on national park soil. It was only a couple of years ago the thought of killing an animal inside a National Park was unheard of and illegal. Bison at the Grand Canyon, Elk and Mountain Goats at Grand Teton have been killed by outside hunters sanctioned by the NPS. They’ve also been busy rounding up all wild horses at Mesa Verde. The excuses vary but the end result is the same. Native wildlife are more in danger by the government paid to protect them than by poachers. Hunters have long baited Bison and Wolves outside Yellowstone NP border but now we have invited them in to kill.
Corporatocracy has overtaken the federal government. The Interior Department has become so infested with hunters, ranchers and polluters it can no longer function as intended. These agencies were never set up to be a friendly cover for private sector. It’s an assault on wildlife and democracy itself. The will of the majority has been usurped by the few for their own monetary gain.
UPDATE: According to a hearing on February 25, 2022 it certainly seemed like the Park Service hopes to run out the clock before making any decisions or revisions to their plan. As far back as eight years ago the Park Service stated they needed a new management plan regarding the elk. Barnekow argued that it has been 'an unreasonable delay' and in light of the current loss of life it has been, A judge listened to the attorney from the Dept of Justice argue that 'in a timely matter' was at the discretion of the agency' which does make it seem like they are delaying action. The legal interpretation of 'shall' with regard to whether the Park Service is compelled to act now was the main focus.
In simple terms the federal government is arguing in court about whether they are compelled to act now even though they have in the past admitted to the severity of the elk situation and needed a new revised management plan they are now arguing if they are legally bound to act on. If the Park Service truly was as they claimed 'stood ready to act' then why are they in court and not removing the fence and cattle that are causing the problems? The judge stated that everyone should have in their mind the "preservation of the herd and that it's given the importance and weight by the agency." David Davito, from DOJ claimed "I assure you that the Park Service understands that." Time will tell as the elk continue to die in record numbers.
If you would like to save the Tule elk from further starvation, denial of water and life itself please call the following and ask that the fence at Tomales Point be removed and that ranching cease at the park:
Non residents contact Dept of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland 202-208-3100 Deb_Haaland@ios.doi.gov
For more information about the Tule Elk click here
For more information about the Tule Elk click here
More information about native wildlife killed on public lands for livestock Click here to read about the massive wolf hunts
*UPDATED information about the Commission decision click here
Wild horses and burros removal
Click here for several more articles about this theme & about the damage cattle does to land and water
Also published a shorter version on Pagosa Daily Post on March 21, 2022 https://pagosadailypost.com/2022/03/21/opinion-end-of-the-line-for-tule-elk/