The Battle Between Ranchers and Tule Elk Coming to a Head in Point Reyes


Point Reyes National Seashore, sitting north of San Francisco on the California coast, is home to a flourishing wildlife population, including elephant seals, black-tailed deer, great blue herons and bobcats. But the species that has flourished the most are the tule elk, and it’s becoming a big problem for dairy farmers.

The Point Reyes elk is one of the largest herds in California, and because they’ve taken up a home at residence of the grassy fields near Drakes Beach, they are competing with dairy cows for grass feeding. And now, after a bi-partisan bill passed through The House of Representatives in September 2018, officials may kill some of the elk to provide relief for the cows.

The National Park Service has scheduled two hearings this month to review six proposals regarding the conflict between the elk and cattle ranchers. The proposals include reducing ranching and dairy cattle in Point Reyes, or renewing 20-year leases to ranchers and limiting the number of tule elk in the area.

In essence, the decision is a battle between dairy ranches and elk. If the ranchers win, officials may begin killing the tule elk and limiting the Drakes Beach herd to 120. Environmentalists staunchly object the plan, saying it would sabotage a decade-long successful reintroduction of the elk to the region. Tule elk, once sitting at populations near 500,000, were hunted to near extinction during the Gold Rush. Now the population sits around 3,800.

“The plan would destroy wildlife habitat, harm endangered species, degrade water quality and lead to killing of some of the park’s most iconic wildlife, including tule elk,” said The Center for Biological Diversity Spokesman Jeff Miller in a written statement.

But the plan isn’t as simple as that. At the center of the thinning sits the dairy farmers, who pay rent to raise cattle on the land and have existed at Point Reyes since the 1860’s. In fact, when President John F. Kennedy signed the bill that acquired the land as a national park, part of the deal was allowing the dairy farmers to stay in the area. The government bought the land from the farmers and they have been paying rent ever since, a deal that was critical for the designation of the park.

“What we would like to see is, put the elk, keep them separate from the working farms and ranches, keep them separate in the 70 percent of the wilderness area,” said longtime rancher Bob McClure. “They’re fine there! We do not dislike elk.”

Currently, two dozen dairy and ranching families have leases on the national seashore and on the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

A public review and comment on the alternatives is open until Sept. 23. The public hearings on the draft environmental impact statement for the General Management Plan Amendment are 5-7 p.m. Aug. 27 at the West Marin School gym in Point Reyes Station and Aug. 28 at the Bay Model Visitor Center in Sausalito.

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