Point Reyes National Seashore Superintendent Cicely Muldoon welcomed participants to two well-attended two and a half hour meetings on the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan and planning process on Thursday and Friday, November 20 and 21. Muldoon was adamant in assuring participants at both meetings that ranching will continue in the Park.
The meetings, held at the Dance Palace, were a combination update on the planning process for a concerned community and an opportunity for civil dialogue among community members about ranching practices and Tule elk affecting the Park ranches.
The Thursday workshop began with a presentation on key ranching practices by the Park’s popular Range Manager, Devi Rao. The presentation was followed by discussions in small breakout groups with moderators and recorders selected by the participants. Each participant had an opportunity to participate in two of three discussion group topics: pasture management, diversification and succession.
For discussion purposes, pasture management activities described include “a variety of activities that are intended to enhance the quality and quantity of forage on ranchlands,” including soil preparation, seeding, nutrient management, harvest mowing, brush and weed control and fencing. A handout reported rancher interest in diversification opportunities as a way of dealing with “poor forage production years, reductions in the price of their products, or increases in the price of inputs such as grain and hay …”
Potential diversification activities included such things as farm tours and farm stays and collaboration with the Park on education programs for the public. The activities being looked at also include allowing modifications to ranch infrastructure to support ranch worker housing needs and the “small scale processing of dairy products,” as well as the on-farm retail sales of farm products.
The Friday workshop on Tule elk opened with a presentation by long-time Park Wildlife Ecologist David Press. He reported that what the Park refers to as the “D Ranch Herd” is now estimated at 95 animals. That herd spends time on A Ranch, B Ranch, C Ranch, D Ranch, E Ranch and “in surrounding areas with no cattle grazing.” In addition, some 25-30 male elk “spend time on ranch lands along Estero Road through the Home Ranch area.” This include a reported seven or eight elk that go north, over Sir Francis Drake Highway.
Press reviewed briefly the history of NPS developing ungulate management plans around the country. The tools for “directly managing ungulate populations to meet resource management objectives [include] contraception, translocation, and fencing as well as lethal removal by NPS employees, contractors, skilled volunteers, and/or a combination.” Press explained that the Ranch Plan will “present a range of alternatives to address elk on ranch lands. The alternatives will range from ‘no action’ on one end to ‘no elk in the pastoral zone’ at the other end.” Alternatives that include elk in the pastoral zone will also analyze limiting based on “population size, range, or both.”
Participants in the small group conversations that followed were asked to talk about both direct and indirect management of the elk population using the tools Press had identified. Translocation of elk outside the Park may not be an option as it requires the approval of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which will not approve moving elk outside the Park unless and until it can be established that the elk are free of Johne’s disease. Testing for Johne’s began in May 2014 and is expected to continue for two years. The Park’s goal is to sample 20 – 30 individual elk each month, alternating between the herd in the Limantour Wilderness and the D Ranch herd.
For the Tule elk workshop the participant groups remained together for the entire workshop. Each group talked about how to move the elk out of the pastoral zone and how to manage elk in the pastoral zone. Groups were asked to report out to the full assembly the three most significant considerations identified for each topic. Based on the oral reports, there was much support for having no elk remain in the pastoral zone and for construction of a fence to keep the elk outside the pastoral zone. The discussions may have been influenced by a compilation of “Elk Fence Fact” that some ranchers distributed at both meetings. It included selected excerpts from the PRNS “2001 Year in Review,” (Editor’s note: the proposed elk fence was not part of the PRNS “2001 Year in Review” but was included in the “Elk Fence Fact” handout) Google Earth maps showing the location of a proposed four mile fence and a list of benefits, including that the fence would “… be easily, quickly and inexpensively ($350,000 to $300,000) constructed; and …eliminate the Seashore’s expenses of hazing elk in the Pastoral Zone and rebuilding fences destroyed by elk.”
Some groups declined to comment on how to manage elk in the pastoral zone citing such things as the failure to manage the elk in the past and the ongoing cost, coupled with the likelihood that the commitment would not be sustained given personnel turnover. Recognizing that the public likes seeing free roaming elk, one group suggested providing opportunities for the public to see the elk in the Limantour Wilderness as well as at Tomales Point. Only one group reported a total failure to agree on any aspect of the topic.
Comments following the public meetings were generally positive. Dairyman Albert Straus observed, “…this is a wonderful opportunity for the Park and farmers to work together to create a model of what is possible, in collaboration with each other. Working together I think they can create sustainable farming systems to help educate the public about revitalizing the farming community.”
EAC Executive Director Amy Trainer said, “EAC staff and board members really appreciated the opportunity to meet some of the Park ranchers we hadn’t met before and listen to their concerns about pasture management issues, diversification, succession, and Tule elk. We look forward to continuing this positive dialogue and helping figure out management strategies that meet our goals of wildlife and natural resource protection together with continued sustainable agricultural operations.”
Despite strong support for moving all of the elk out of the pastoral zone, there was at least one comment that “removing the elk will probably not happen.” And a word of caution came from MALT Executive Director Jamison Watts: “…echoing comments from many of the participants, I think we have a real opportunity to accomplish something really special in the park by supporting agriculture that’s both economically viable and environmentally sustainable. The question is will the decision-makers in D.C. let us.”
Asked for her comment on the meetings, Superintendent Muldoon responded: “…we are grateful for the community participation in the ranch plan workshops . . . . Open dialog between the park, park ranchers, park stakeholders, and other interested parties is critical to this process… The ranch plan is an exceptional opportunity to strengthen both the historic working ranches and the natural and cultural resources of the park. We look forward to the next steps and expect to release a document for comment this summer.”
The handout, titled “Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan Update November 2014,” is available on the Park’s website. For people unable to attend the workshops, the Park provided an additional public comment period that closed on Wednesday, November 26, 2014.
By Linda Petersen and Citizen staff