Point Reyes management plan calls for shooting elk, preserving ranches

The proposal, which cost nearly $1 million to develop, revives a controversy over private ranching in the national seashore.|

Tule elk in the Point Reyes National Seashore could be shot to control their swelling numbers, and cattle ranchers would be assured a lengthy future and latitude to expand their farming operations under a proposed management plan aimed at bridging a sharp divide over the presence of commercial agriculture in the 71,000-acre national park.

The plan, which cost nearly $1 million to develop and won’t be implemented until next year, was released Thursday by the National Park Service, which manages the sprawling seashore on the Marin County coast.

Reviving a controversy that dates back to the agency’s decision in 2012 to evict an oyster farm from a Pacific Ocean inlet in the seashore, the plan - described as “shockingly anti-wildlife” by one conservationist - could also send environmentalists and the federal government back into court over the conflict between farming for profit and land preservation.

The proposal has been identified by the National Seashore staff as the “preferred alternative” of six variations developed over the past two years. The public now has 45 days to review and comment on the document.

The preferred plan would give 20-year leases to the two dozen beef and dairy cattle ranching families who lease about ?26,100 acres of federally -owned land in the seashore and the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area, allowing them to continue grazing about 2,400 beef cattle and 3,100 dairy animals.

They would also be allowed to expand and diversify their operations, hosting tourists in farm buildings, raising crops and introducing other livestock, including sheep, goats, pigs and chickens.

The ranchers, who now hold five-year leases, have maintained they need 20 years of assured operation to justify making improvements to buildings that in some cases look worn by time and weather on the often- fogbound peninsula.

“What we’re all hoping for is stability,” said Jackie Grossi, who with her husband, Rich, runs a historic Point Reyes ranch, where the family has raised beef cattle for three generations.

But the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental watchdog, described the plan as one that “would enshrine cattle grazing as the primary use of a huge swath of the National Seashore, at the expense of native wildlife and natural habitats.”

Its primary spokesman, Jeff Miller, also assailed provisions in the preferred plan that would allow expansion of agricultural activities on the federal lands.

“This would inevitably lead to conflicts with the park’s native wildlife, and could result in ranchers calling for killing of coyotes, bobcats, foxes and numerous birds,” he warned in a written statement.

The plan already calls explicitly for the Park Service to “actively manage” the Drakes Beach elk herd to limit it to 120 adults “using lethal removal methods.”

Park Superintendent Cicely Muldoon said that means shooting the animals to curb the population growth. At the end of last year, the Drakes Beach herd numbered 124 elk, she said.

Muldoon noted provisions in the plan that specifically bar “management of any predators associated with new livestock species.”

“The history of preserving Marin’s incredible open spaces is intertwined with ranchlands,” Muldoon said. “The two things come together here in Point Reyes unlike any other national park. It can work, and indeed has worked together for more than 50 years. Of course it’s complicated, and of course we can do better. In the end, the park will be better protected if we can find common ground - whatever perspectives people come from on this issue, everyone cares about this place.

Herds of elk, including huge bulls with massive antlers, are a popular calling card for the seashore, which draws 2.5 million visitors a year. But they are a bane to some ranchers because they compete with cattle for forage.

Tule elk, found only in California, once numbered close to 500,000 animals and were hunted nearly to extinction during the Gold Rush. Reintroduced to the seashore in 1978, the elk roam in several herds, the largest of which numbers about 430 and lives behind a fence on Tomales Point. That area is outside the ranch territory focused on in the management plan, Muldoon said.

The Limantour herd, which numbered 174 animals, would be “monitored closely and managed in consideration of ranching operations,” the plan states.

But the Drakes Beach elk already has exceeded what Miller argued was “an arbitrary population threshold,” one that would trigger lethal culling under the new plan, as well as harassment and hazing to keep them off ranch areas.

“We don’t want to see any persecution of the tule elk,” Miller said.

The Center for Biological Diversity was one of three groups that sued the Park Service in 2016, alleging that decades of cattle grazing at the seashore had trampled the landscape and polluted waterways.

The legal action halted the Park Service’s process of granting 20-year leases to the ranchers, initiated by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as part of his order evicting a commercial oyster farm from Drakes Estero in 2012, a move that gained national attention and sharply divided the West Marin community.

A settlement of the suit approved in 2017 directed the Park Service to draft a management plan that was required to include alternatives that would maintain the status quo for ranching and both eliminate or reduce ranching.

The preferred alternative, Muldoon said, is intended to strike a balance between cattle and endangered species in the seashore.

“We think both these things can thrive together,” she said, noting that the historic ranches are a “cultural resource” that merits preservation.

Ranching is “part of our story, part of our history. It’s unique to Point Reyes,” Muldoon said.

Miller said the lawsuit was never intended to terminate cattle ranching but rather to prompt a thorough assessment of its impact.

Grazing must be consistent with the park’s purpose, “as Congress established it,” to provide public access and enjoyment of the land, he said.

Asked if the plan could prompt renewed legal action, Miller said it was “too early to talk about that.”

Muldoon said litigation is “always a possibility. There’s a lot of passion around this subject.”

Muldoon also said the preferred alternative may be tailored during the lengthy approval process.

The plan, which includes an environmental study of each alternative, is under public review through Sept. 23. The final version will be released early next year after all written comments have been addressed and will become official after a 30-day waiting period.

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