As reported in the Citizen last week, the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association (PRSRA) has stepped up pressure on park officials to take immediate action to remedy overgrazing and other elk problems they claim threatens the very survival of the ranches in Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS). This week, PRNS officials respond to that article, plus answer additional questions on the issue.
As background, tule elk, native to California, had all but disappeared from the Point Reyes area by 1860. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), in cooperation with US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service (NPS), reintroduced tule elk to the 2,600 acre Tomales Point Wilderness in 1978. They are kept from roaming into the ranch areas, restricted by the Pacific Ocean to the north and west, Tomales Bay to the east, and a three-mile-long, ten-foot-high wildlife fence to the south.
In 1998, NPS officials moved 45 elk from that original herd to the Limantour Estero Wilderness area to “establish a free-roaming herd”. No fences were built to contain this new herd, although a formal Elk Management Plan was developed.
In 1999, two elk from this herd “showed up behind the barns on the C Ranch”, across Drakes Estero some six to eight miles away, “with tracking collars on their neck” according to C Ranch manager Ernie Spaletta. The NPS says they did not relocate this herd, rather they migrated out of the unfenced, free-roaming wilderness area on their own.
It is this third herd that is causing consternation among the ranchers in the Drakes Beach area of PRNS. Now 74 animals strong, according to the last official NPS count, they are now roaming around the B, C, and E ranch pastures in the Pastoral Zone with the cows.
Asking for help
Ranchers, in their September 23, 2013 letter to NPS Superintendent Cicely Muldoon, assert “The Drakes Beach herd is affecting ranchers in this area on a daily basis by damaging fences and other infrastructure allowing cattle to get into the wrong pastures, impacting forage and water resources, causing physical harm to livestock, and putting the ranchers’ organic certifications and overall livelihoods at serious risk. Despite the Seashore’s promises of commitment continually made to the PRNS ranching community that their sustainability is ensured, the current problems created by the elk guarantee an end to agriculture in the park.”
In that letter, the PRSRA quotes a March 2012 letter from Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey: “Their concern, and mine is the considerable damage and economic impact that grazing elk are having on their operations. Additionally the elk population is growing by 12% each year and migrating further onto agricultural leased property.”
David Press, NPS Wildlife Biologist for PRNS, and NPS Outreach Coordinator Melanie Gunn discussed rancher concerns, the 1998 Elk Management Plan, and other tule elk herd management issues during a recent Citizen interview at Park Headquarters.
Press stressed the 1998 Elk Management Plan specifically addressed the “reintroduction of a free-range herd in Limantour, but it did not anticipate the elk wandering into the Pastoral Zone, and the plan does not address what the park should do in that situation. It only addresses what the park should do if elk migrate outside the park.”
New plan needed
Press said while ranchers have asked the NPS to move the elk back to the wilderness area, the PRNS Elk Management Plan does not allow for that, according to Department of Interior (DOI) attorneys. “So we need to develop a new Elk Management Plan to address the movement of elk from wilderness to pastoral ranching areas inside the park itself,” he said.
“PRNS wants to strengthen relationships with the ranchers,” Press continued. “We are not phasing out ag for tule elk or other wildlife. We are committed to preserving ag and finding the right balance with wildlife management.”
Gunn added emphasis to Press’ comments saying “NPS officials truly want to work closely with the ranchers to solve the problem, and continue to build on the historical NPS support of ranching in the park.” She said they are guided by a letter written by former DOI Secretary Ken Salazar in May 2012 to Senator Diane Feinstein, in response to the Senator’s request on behalf of the PRSRA that he review the NPS efforts to address the elk situation to “protect the rights and property of ranching leases.”
Gunn said the NPS continues today to follow Salazar’s lead in the agency’s commitment to the ranching community as stated in his response to Feinstein: “The NPS actively supports historic dairy and beef operations at Point Reyes and has made significant investments in ranching infrastructure. PRNS recognizes that beef and dairy ranches operate in a challenging economic environment and we take the concerns raised by the park ranchers seriously. The 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment for Point Reyes did not contemplate, analyze, or assess the establishment of a tule elk herd in the pastoral ranching zone of the Park,” his letter continued.
The PRSRA has stated that 1) the ranchers simply want the NPS to follow the existing 1998 NPS Elk Management Plan that provides for relocating elk that cause damage to private property; and 2) the association disagrees with the NPS contention that the 1998 management plan does not apply to this herd of elk and that NPS hands are tied until a new Environmental Assessment (EA) which would contain a new Elk Management Plan must be completed before anything can be done.
Press, however, said the NPS interprets the plan differently. “The 1998 EA allowed for reintroduction of tule elk into a new area as a free range herd (the Limantour Wilderness herd noted above). It did not anticipate that the tule elk would wander or migrate into the Pastoral Zone, and so the 1998 plan does not address what the park should do in that situation. It talks quite specifically, I think, about what the NPS must do if the tule elk leave the park and enter private property—not if they end up in areas of the park where they were not expected to roam.”
Ranchers point to several statements within the 1998 EA they believe gives the NPS authority to act, including “Under alternative A the Seashore will maintain the elk fence on Tomales Point and continue to separate elk from cattle.” They also point to the section of the EA titled “Relocation of Elk to Limantour” which states “Tule elk will be allowed to roam outside the area as long as new home ranges are not established where conflicts with traffic corridors or neighbors are likely.”
“We too are concerned about elk impacts on ranching operations,” Press emphasized. “The statement that the park has not been doing anything to help the ranchers is just not accurate. We are preparing for the planning process, by meeting with ranchers and we have more field biologists spending time in the Pastoral Zone monitoring elk. The ranchers are saying we want you to move the elk back to the wilderness area, and it is their opinion that the 1998 Elk Management Plan allows for that.” However, Press pointed out “We contend that we cannot, because of our solicitors and DOI lawyers guidance that says ‘no the 1998 Elk Management Plan does not give you that authority.”
A new plan
Gunn interjected, “In fact, it would be going against NEPA law if we did that. As much as we would like to help solve the problem now, we don’t have the authority.” (As required by federal law and NPS management policies, management plans must be developed through a public process that conforms to the National Environmental Quality Act (NEPA). The NEPA process consists of an evaluation of the environmental effects of a federal undertaking including its alternatives.)
She said she was “Happy to announce today that we have finally secured the funding to do a new comprehensive dairy and ranching management plan which is also needed because of Secretary Salazar’s decision last November to extend the ranches’ special use permits to 20 years. The tule elk will be addressed in the new plan that covers the new lease terms.” (Special use permits are often referred to as “leases” that govern the ranching operations. In this instance, the NPS is the landlord and the ranchers are the tenant operators. Originally written for five years, and then extended to 10 years, the permits were issued to the original owners of ranches whose land was condemned by the government and then leased back to the original owners when PRNS was designated national park.)
Gunn and Press were then asked “How do you respond to people who say the elk should not have been reintroduced into the pastoral zone from the wilderness because doing so is a violation of California Coastal Act because the elk are displacing ag land and that is violation of the California Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) that says “federal agencies shall comply with the CZMA o the extent possible under federal law and that enforceable policies of the CZMA provide that lands suitable for agriculture shall not be converted to nonagricultural use unless continued or renewed agricultural use is not feasible?”
“The NPS is staying in ag, we support ag in the PRNS,” Gunn responded. “We are grateful we now have funding to begin the new 20-year planning process we’ve been talking about, that is going to get underway after the first of the year, that will focus on the future of ag in the park. And, actually some ranchers are not sure they want 20 year leases, so it could be for a period of up to 20 years.”
Not ‘if’ but ‘how’
She pointed out “There has been some talk about Drakes Bay Oyster Company leaving the park as the first sign that ranches will be pushed out of the park, and that is absolutely not true.” She continued, “The Secretary has confirmed that with his announcement of 20-year leases. This planning process is not about whether the ranches will stay in PRNS, but how they will stay. PRNS is a model for the country when it comes to ranches inside parks. This is a real opportunity to change the tone in the community about ranches and the park. We are looking forward to how we can strengthen relationships with ranchers in the park.”
Press added, “As another example of the fact we are not phasing out ag for tule elk or other wildlife in the park, I want to point out that when D Ranch closed during 2001, and reverted to park management, the main pastures remained in ag; they were divided up between the C Ranch and the E Ranch. We are committed to preserving ag in the park.”
The D Ranch reverted to NPS when Horick family heirs decided to exit the ranching business after their mother Vivian died. Most of the pasture area of the ranch was added to adjacent ranch leases: pasture acres were added to the adjacent Historic C Ranch lease, managed by Ernie and Nichola Spaletta, and to the Historic E Ranch managed by Tim Nunes. Press noted that the D Ranch farmstead buildings (house, barns, sheds), livestock watering ponds, and the land that runs down to Drakes Beach reverted to PRNS management, and is no longer permitted for grazing.”
Press and Gunn were also asked to respond to another prickly question: “What do you say to the ranchers who remind me that when they went back to Washington, D.C., they ‘agreed to lay down their swords and stop fighting condemnation of their land for the establishment of the new PRNS if the government would allow them to run the ranches as they always had done’—and there were NO elk involved when they made that agreement, and no EIS was done in advance of reintroducing elk onto their ranches?”
“It’s true, no EIS was done,” Press said, continuing “There is no current document around elk, and that’s an issue for us out there, too. Again, no one anticipated the elk would migrate out into the ranches.”
Elk movement tracked
One of the biggest challenges associated with managing elk, of course, is their impact on available forage for both wildlife and livestock, Gunn noted. A full time NPS range management specialist is assigned to work with the Seashore ranchers “as it is complicated to run a ranch on NPS property given NEPA rules.”
Press has employed the use of sophisticated GPS tracking devices to monitor where the elk are roaming. Two cows and two bulls were outfitted with tracking collars in the Drakes Bay area in October 2012 with three-hour data points. The computerized system generates an email to Press every three days, from which he can create a map of where the elk have been. That data, along with visual observations by biologists who are in that area two or three times per week, will be included in the preparation of the elk management plan component of the new 20-year management plan for the Pastoral Zone. Gunn said “We are generating valuable research data. Thus far, we have 650 surveys of elk movement completed since the fall of 2009.”
Getting back to the specific requests of the ranchers who have reported damages that are affecting their economic well being, Press noted two key complaints: damages to fences and forage consumption by elk. (The operating leases require ranchers to pay for the cost of fencing, building maintenance such as new roofs, ranch roadway maintenance, and general upkeep of the entire infrastructure on the properties.)
“We are exploring opportunities to provide additional pastures to affected ranchers, from areas now controlled by the park that are not part of the ranch leases, forage areas that are adjacent to affected ranches.” Gunn noted.
Press said they are working on fence damage concerns. NPS has installed “elk crossings” that allow elk to move across fence lines without tearing up the fences, as shown in the attached photo provided by the NPS. Press noted that they want to help with fence repair, and “some ranchers request we don’t repair their fences, and some do.”
Press also noted that in an attempt to alleviate pressure on ranch forage and water resources—especially in this recent drought year when many livestock watering ponds dried up—and to keep elk bunched up away from ranch pastures, PRNS has started an elk watering project at the D Ranch.
Two, 5,000 gallon water tanks have been set up outside the old barn on D Ranch and tapped into the Drakes Beach Visitor Center water system. Water is pumped up to the holding tanks so it can be “de-chlorinated” before it is piped out to two old livestock watering ponds and one spring area below the barns, keeping them full. “This project is designed to encourage the elk to stay on the NPS property at the D Ranch, instead of roaming onto leased pastures,” Press said.
According to Press, 60 cow elk are congregating around the D Ranch watering areas, and GPS monitoring shows a significant reduction in the use of neighboring ranch pastures, even though no supplemental feeding is provided.
Population control options are controversial to say the least, but the ramifications of doing nothing can have far reaching impacts on wildlife habitat as well as agricultural operations. According to CDFW reports, at the Tupman Tule Elk Reserve, where no cattle compete with the elk for forage, the elk were confined to a 953-acre enclosure, and no mechanisms for population control were used. As a result, the herd expanded to a point where the habitat was essentially destroyed and artificial feeding was necessary.
The hunting option to control population numbers has been controversial at all national parks. While most NPS policies do not allow hunting of native wildlife in official “national parks”, The Wildlife Society’s 2012 technical report titled “Ungulate Management in the National Parks of the US and Canada” notes the enabling legislation for the NPS authorizes hunting in some types of park units, such as national seashores and national preserves.
Press noted “hunting will not likely be an option for PRNS given the history of West Marin community advocates who are against all hunting. Controlled reduction of herd size will be addressed in our new management plan. We don’t have answers to that now, that is another reason why we need a new Elk Management Plan,” he concluded.
Currently there are 21 herds of tule elk in California, with numbers estimated at about 3,800 animals. PRNS is home to 708 animals or 19 percent of the state’s tule elk population, according to CDFW.
Interestingly, herd management plans for all of the other tule elk relocation areas in California include hunting. But they are managed by CDFW, with decidedly different policy mandates than the NPS. Last year, 12,537 applications were received for 125 hunting permits. The highest demand for permits was for hunting at Grizzly Island, where over 2500 hunters applied for two permits.
Ranchers are not pushing for a park hunt. They want all the elk in the Pastoral Zone to be relocated to either the existing fenced Tomales Point Wilderness herd, or they suggest the NPS could build a new fenced area that would prohibit movement onto Pastoral Zone pastures.
And, they want action now. As one rancher noted, “We don’t have the luxury of waiting another two years for another management plan—a plan we don’t think we need because NPS already has an elk management plan. The feed costs we are incurring now because elk eat the pasture our cows used to eat are going to run us out of business. We don’t have the option of cutting herd size to accommodate elk, we must maintain an economically viable cow herd size. The elk herd has been growing at 12 percent per year since we first asked the NPS to get the elk out in 2000. You figure those 70 or so elk out there right now are eating about what 70 cows would eat. We are in the Pastoral Zone, and no elk should be in that zone according to our original deal with the Government.”
by Ann Miller. Published December 2013