As Point Reyes National Seashore begins a new process focused on comprehensive ranch planning, it is important for people to understand the basic background of why there are ranches within the Seashore, as well as how and where the elk were reintroduced. This article is based on the presentation I gave at the West Marin Chamber of Commerce’s elk forum last week, and the research comes from a book I am currently finishing about working landscapes at Point Reyes.
The Role of Agriculture at PRNS
Point Reyes was first studied by the National Park Service (NPS) as a potential park location in the 1930s; in 1959 it was formally proposed as a National Seashore, and was established in 1962. At that time, the peninsula supported fifteen active dairies and ten beef ranches, all privately owned and operated, and mostly by families with multi-generational connections to the landscape.
PRNS was originally intended to provide beach and recreation access close to an urban population, part of the NPS’s “Parks for the People” campaign of the early 1960s. Yet it was established with a 26,000-acre pastoral zone, stretching from A Ranch up to Pierce and back down to Home Ranch, intended to remain in private ownership; parcels larger than 500 acres could not be acquired by the NPS except with consent of the owners, as long as the land stayed in a natural state or agricultural use. At one of the hearings, Senator Bible stated that the legislation fostered “long-established ranching and dairying activities which. . . will not interfere with the public enjoyment” of Point Reyes; Senator Kuchel added that the pastoral zone would be “an equitable solution for preserving the local economy.”
For a variety of reasons, the pastoral zone ended up being acquired by the NPS after additional legislation passed in 1970; at the time, a compromise was reached where the ranchers agreed to support this change, as long as they could continue to operate within the Seashore. Most of the ranches were acquired by the NPS in 1972-73, most with 20-year Reservations of Use and Occupancy (RUOs) in exchange for discounted purchase prices. In 1978, Congress added language allowing agriculture to continue indefinitely; RUOs on agricultural properties could be converted to leases or special use permits, giving the historic ranching families “first right of refusal” for those leases. Most ranching reservations made this transition in the early 1990s.
During discussion of the 1970 legislation, Congress clearly directed continuing ranching as a permanent part of the Seashore, which it reaffirmed with its 1978 legislation. This was echoed in the 1980 General Management Plan for the park; “Although the establishment of the seashore and influences within the dairy industry have resulted in a reduction of agricultural activity at Point Reyes, Congress clearly intended that the ranches continue to operate.” However, the number of working ranches within the boundaries has dwindled significantly since the Seashore was established. Today there are only six dairies still in operation on the peninsula, and five beef cattle ranches.
Establishment of the Tomales Point Tule Elk Herd
Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) are a subspecies endemic to California, particularly the Central Valley, which had been reduced by market hunting nearly to extinction in the late 1800s, when a lone population of roughly ten individuals was discovered on a private cattle ranch near Bakersfield in the 1890s. This small population remnant was protected by the ranch owner, and increased to roughly 400 elk by 1914; later, some of the elk were relocated to other areas around the state.
By 1971, concern for this subspecies prompted the California Legislature to enact Senate Bill 722, sponsored by Peter Behr, to encourage expansion of the statewide population of tule elk to 2000, building from a population at that time of about 600 animals. According to PRNS’s Administrative History, “when discussions regarding the possibility of elk reintroduction to Point Reyes began, the biggest concern among both locals and park staff was the potential for disrupting peninsula dairy and grazing operations. State Fish and Game officials wanted the reintroduced elk to remain inside an enclosure, because of problems that free-ranging elk had created in the agricultural sector of the Central Valley.”
In 1976, Congress designated over 25,000 acres of PRNS as wilderness, and included Tomales Point, which was considered a prime location for establishing a transplanted tule elk herd. Long-time rancher Mervyn McDonald was forced to give up his lease at Pierce Point Ranch to make way for the new arrivals.
In 1978, the first herd of ten elk arrived at PRNS, and were eventually released onto Tomales Point behind a 10-foot-high elk fence to prevent elk and cattle from intermixing—both to prevent possible disease transmission, and to avoid management conflicts. Several elk died in their second year, but gradually the herd stabilized and started to grow. A population study conducted by graduate student Pete Gogan at UC Berkeley estimated the carrying capacity for Tomales Point was 140 individuals, and that “once the elk reached that level, the population would naturally stabilize.”
Yet after the drought of the late 1970s ended, the population began to soar at an exponential rate: by 1988, 93 individuals were recorded by the NPS; by 1994, the elk census showed 254 individuals, and in 1996, the population stood at 380.
In May 1997, PRNS staff gave a presentation at a Citizens Advisory Commission meeting, regarding the over-large size of the elk herd on Tomales Point; the Point Reyes Light reported, “About 100 calves were born last year,’ researcher Judd Howell told commissioners at a meeting in the Dance Palace. ‘That was a wake-up call. Suddenly we had a 33 percent increase in population.’” Superintendent Neubacher was quoted as saying, “I see no easy solutions to the management of the elk. . . But it’s important to create a long-term plan.”
The 1998 Elk Management Plan and Relocation of Elk to Limantour
This resulted in the 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment. At this time, the Tomales Point herd size was approximately 550 individuals, and the statewide population of tule elk was 3,200 and growing. One of five objectives listed in the plan was to establish a free-ranging elk herd at Point Reyes by 2005.
Implementation did not take that long; in December 1998, a number of elk were relocated via helicopter from Tomales Point to a 25-acre fenced range just north of Coast Camp, to be quarantined and monitored for several months to ensure they were not carrying Johne’s disease. According to the Light, some residents expressed concern that the relocated elk would spread to private property on the east side of Inverness Ridge, and “several ranchers in the National Seashore said that they’d like park staff to fence in areas so that cattle would not mix with the elk.” In June 1999, Seashore staff released twenty-seven elk from their quarantine holding pen into the wilderness area near Limantour Estero. Each released adult animal wore a uniquely identifiable radio transmitter collar designed to allow tracking of locations and early detection of mortality.
The 1998 Elk Management Plan clearly states, “The Park Service has a responsibility to be a good neighbor to adjacent and nearby landowners. Anticipating the effects of tule elk management strategies on the property or perceptions of neighbors is an important consideration. Any depredations by elk on fences, crops, or other property would require mitigation actions to correct or avoid problems.” The Plan specifies that it “makes no effort” to hasten the closure of ranches within the Seashore, and while it considered an alternative (B) that would have allowed elk to free-range throughout the Seashore, that alternative was explicitly rejected.
Under the preferred Alternative A, the Limantour area was chosen for relocation due to its “large acreage in natural zoned with buffers from major highways, ranches, and lands outside the Seashore,” and clearly articulated that, “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.” It goes on to specify, “Damage to property could occur if elk move outside the Seashore onto private lands and consume crops or damage fences or other property. The Seashore will be ready to recapture or destroy problem animals should these situations arise, or establish partnerships with state and county agencies with the necessary skills and personnel to assist with the recapture. The Seashore should be prepared to provide funding for compensating property damage if necessary. It may be possible for the Seashore to modify parts of the habitat to help prevent such occurrences, or construct barriers to dispersal.”
The elk range identified in the 1998 Plan is restricted to the wilderness area around and south of Limantour, not extending into the Pastoral Zone. Any possible impacts of relocating elk that have wandered out of the elk range back to the wilderness area have already been analyzed (in the context of “neighboring” private property), and the resulting document was a Finding of No Significant Impact. Hence there should be no need for additional NEPA review for returning the elk to their originally intended range in the wilderness area near Limantour, as such actions have already been determined to cause no significant impacts.
A New Herd Established Near Drakes Beach
Yet by summer 2000, at least two elk had turned up across Drakes Estero on the former Horick (D) Ranch, which had just been decommissioned/lease terminated the previous year. They eventually grew into an established herd, which currently is affecting ranches in that area of the Seashore, as the elk cross into leased pastures, not only eating the cattle’s forage (which needed to be replaced with expensive hay), but also damaging fences and irrigation systems. Holes in the fencing left by the elk allow dairy cows to stray from their proper pastures, and potentially to be bred at the wrong time or by the wrong bull. Similarly, tule elk from the Limantour herd are regularly seen on ranches north of that area, causing similar problems.
The PRNS Annual Report for 2001 stated, “Since their release, the new herd [at Limantour] has been carefully monitored to ensure animals remain within Seashore boundaries, do not interfere with cattle ranches within the park and are not shedding the organism that causes Johne’s disease.” Yet the tule elk have been interfering with ranches for years now, with little response. Furthermore, like the original population at Tomales Point, the free-ranging herds at both Limantour and the Horick Ranch have continued to increase; by early 2014, the herd sizes were 71 and 76, respectively, and a 2010 study of their population dynamics estimates that, without intervention, both herds will likely increase to approximately 400 individuals by 2018.
The Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association has requested that PRNS take action as soon as possible to relocate the tule elk away from the pastoral zone, or several ranches could be in danger of going out of business entirely from the impacts.
Published May 8, 2014
Dr. Laura A. Watt is an Associate Professor and Chair of Environmental Studies and Planning at Sonoma State University, and is currently completing a book project on the history of management at PRNS, titled “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore,” to be published by the UC Press.