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Determining the Future of Point Reyes National Seashore

Growing elk herds are competing with grazing cattle at the national park, raising questions about how best to manage public lands.


After being reintroduced to the park in 1978, Tule elk are now numerous at Point Reyes National Seashore. While naturalists view their comeback as a success, local ranchers consider the large deer pests that compete with their cattle for food. - PHOTO BY CARLOS PORRETA
  • Photo by Carlos Porreta
  • After being reintroduced to the park in 1978, Tule elk are now numerous at Point Reyes National Seashore. While naturalists view their comeback as a success, local ranchers consider the large deer pests that compete with their cattle for food.

Cows graze to the edge of the continent, where green hills terminate at a broad sandy beach. Beyond, the blue-gray ocean extends to the horizon.

"Some days, that's just solid elk out there," said Tom Baty, pointing across the public ranch land of Point Reyes National Seashore.

Tule elk once roamed the area by the thousands. European American hunters came a few rifle shots from exterminating the animals from their entire range in the late 1800s. A handful of elk were reintroduced to the park in 1978, and their population has exploded. Today, the giant deer roam much of the area, and to naturalists like Baty, the elk represent a marvelous success story.

But to some of the ranchers who graze cattle on this public preserve, the elk are pests. They jump fences, often damaging them as they do, and they compete with the cattle for food. Other than a mountain lion or two that may roam the peninsula, nothing preys on the elk of Point Reyes. While some are contained behind a fence near Tomales Point, others are free to roam most of the peninsula. As this herd continues growing, tensions will, too, and the National Park Service will have to respond — possibly by removing cattle, and almost certainly by removing elk.

Both these options, plus others, are now on the table as the park service drafts a new 20-year management plan for Point Reyes and the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area — something they are required to do as the result of a 2016 lawsuit filed by three environmental groups. In that court action, the Resource Renewal Institute, the Western Watersheds Project, and the Center for Biological Diversity alleged that the park service was repeatedly extending ranchers' land leases without adequately considering the impacts of cattle on the landscape. While the outcome was considered a victory for wildlife advocates, who say they want ranching more tightly regulated but not eliminated from the park, the future of the seashore — and its growing elk herd — is still very much undecided. Management alternatives under review include banishing ranching altogether, phasing out dairy operations but not beef, exiling the elk from the park's pasture areas, and granting ranchers the freedom to diversify their operations.

This latter option would allow ranchers to keep other species of animals, like sheep, goats, and pigs, and run small vegetable farms. It could even allow ranchers to lead farm tours, host wedding parties, and operate bed-and-breakfast ventures.

"Maybe we could have an Airbnb out here," said Claire Herminjard, who runs cattle on the peninsula with partner David Evans, founder of the Petaluma meat company Marin Sun Farms.

This vision of the park — a blend of undeveloped wild country and moderate human impact — calls to question what national parks are for and what is meant by the very concept of wilderness. Many naturalists believe parks must be refuges for wildlife, free of human industries, where — as the adage goes — people take only pictures and leave only footprints. Cattle ranching doesn't fit into this system.

Others, and not just farmers, feel differently.

"There's this idea in America where we've all learned that parks should be big, empty nature," said Laura Watt, a land use policy expert and professor at Sonoma State University who supports Point Reyes ranching.

Point Reyes' ranchers, who once owned the peninsula but today lease its land from the federal government, find themselves facing off with litigious advocacy groups. However, the matter is not quite as simple as a conflict of environmentalists against farmers, since many Point Reyes ranchers consider themselves environmentalists as well.

"We've been models of folding environmentalism into ranching, and ranching into environmentalism," Evans said. He and Herminjard graze beef cattle on 800 acres at Point Reyes, and they argue that pastured cattle can provide a variety of benefits for native flora and fauna, as well as for visitors.

"People come to Point Reyes not only to see wildlife but also a historic lifestyle of environmental ranching," Evans said.

The unfolding saga could set a new precedent for American parks that has environmentalists on edge.

"We're concerned about the direction this is going," said Jeff Miller, the local conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. "President Trump has been loading federal agencies with people hostile to the original goals of those agencies, and hostile to natural resources." Miller warns that the Department of the Interior is poised to allow a "corporate takeover of public lands."

Baty, who lives on a forested ridge a long stone's throw to the east of the park's wilderness, wants clear lines drawn in the sand. He said he does not want organic vegetables or berries grown in the national park, and though he opposes terminating any ranch leases, he feels ranchers must be a little more accepting of the reintroduced native elk.

"We're smart enough people to figure out a way for the free-range elk herd to continue their free-range behavior without the ranches having to be shut down," he said.

Tule elk once grazed the grasslands and foothills of California in huge numbers, with the animals' population roughly equaling the current human population of Oakland and Berkeley combined. European Americans, in classic style, almost eradicated the elk. By 1870, when grizzlies were still common in much of California, the elk were gone. Herds that ecologists guess had amounted to half a million animals just 20 years earlier had been thinned to possibly as few as 10 individuals, these preserved on a ranch near Bakersfield.