Point Reyes, CA – Today, the National Park Service released its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to amend the General Management Plan for the popular Bay Area parks Point Reyes National Seashore and the northern portion of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Despite public opposition to the ongoing agricultural impacts to wildlife and waterways, the draft EIS indicates the agency will manage beef and dairy cows as “integral” to the parks. This includes lethally removing any of the native tule elk that interfere with ranching operations.
“The idea that the park service is going to kill native wildlife for the sake of ranches in a National Park unit is shocking,” said Laura Cunningham, California director of Western Watersheds Project. “The parks should be managed for native wildlife, not the commercial cattle industry.”
The enabling legislation that Congressionally created this park intended it for conservation and public recreation on the “diminishing seashores of the United States,” with “maximum protection, restoration, and preservation of the natural environment within the area.”
The free-roaming Drakes Beach tule elk herd is estimated at 124 animals, and the Limantour elk herd is estimated at 174 animals. The preferred alternative would limit the populations of these elk in order to lessen competition with private livestock for forage resources.
In contrast, the herds of non-native cattle have large impacts on the plant and animals in the park, causing erosion, overgrazing of sensitive meadows and coastal prairies, manure management problems, and water quality declines. Currently the park has 2,400 beef cattle and 3,315 dairy cows (actually animal units, which equals a cow-calf pair or one bull). The proposal that the park service prefers would continue these livestock numbers, but reduce native elk.
Tule elk are a special California endemic subspecies of elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes). They are carefully managed by the state in various preserves around the state. Tule elk faced extinction during the Gold Rush of the mid to late 1800s as market hunters relentlessly took elk as a source of meat to feed the swarm of miners. The result was a genetic bottleneck, which still plagues the existing tule elk populations.
The original population of tule elk in pristine California before European contact is estimated at 500,000 elk roaming freely across the Coast Ranges, Central Valley, and Sierra Foothills. By the early 1900s the tule elk population had plummeted to a grand total of 28 elk. That was the observed global population of this subspecies. DNA evidence indicates the tule elk numbers could have been as low as a single pair or a small number (2-4) of closely related individuals (see California Department of Fish and Wildlife website).
Fortunately some people back then cared enough to work to preserve these remaining tule elk, and the tule elk population gradually grew again through careful conservation and relocation to different parts of their original range. Today the population of tule elk has reached 5,700.
Tule elk today need to be conserved in many areas to retain any genetic diversity, which adds to the health of herds. Plus, Point Reyes national Seashore is the only public land where visitors can view tule elk on the Pacific Coast with ocean views and coastal prairies.
The park service is also proposing to allow ranchers to continue with commercial dairy and beef operations in 20-year leases, despite the fact that in the 1960s and 70s taxpayers bought out all the ranchers with millions of dollars, and at the time the ranchers agreed to relocate out of the park. Now, the park service is also proposing to allow ranchers to diversify into having more sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens, as well as row crops. Farm stays and ranch tours would also be authorized on parklands, including for-profit tourism rentals.
“The intent of the establishment of Point Reyes National Seashore was to preserve the natural seashore, not have some kind of farmland amusement park,” Cunningham added. “It is time for the National Park Service to manage these beautiful Pacific Coast public lands for the native wildlife and natural scenery.”
The park service will hold a 45-day comment period and the public is encouraged to comment about their park lands and how they will be managed for the next several decades.