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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.



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Strident efforts to save the tule elk — one of many distinct subspecies of North American elk — were very successful. The herds grew, and animals were relocated to various regions of the state, where they seeded new populations. In 1978, eight females and two males were moved from a reserve near Los Banos to the blustery green hills of Tomales Point. On a retired cattle ranch, the animals' numbers grew, and grew, and grew. In 1999, 28 elk captured from the Tomales Point preserve were released into the designated wilderness area near Limantour Beach.

Today, about 6,000 tule elk run wild in California, and the Point Reyes peninsula hosts nearly 700 of them. They are generally considered to be centered in three groups — the Tomales Point herd, the Limantour herd, and the Drakes Estero herd. The Tomales Point animals, numbering about 400, are isolated on their wilderness promontory by a giant fence that crosses the entire peninsula and enters the water on each side. However, the elk of the Limantour and Drakes groups — numbering about 150 and 110, respectively — have free range of much of the park.

Standing at the Drakes Estero trailhead, Baty looks southwest, across a broad sweep of rolling green hills, scattered eucalyptus thickets, and, of course, cows.

"This is pretty much ground-zero for the elk issue," he said.

Here, the leased acreage of the Home Ranch, where several hundred beef cattle graze, abuts the wilderness area to the south — a demarcation visible up close as a frontier between trim and tidy pasture and shrubby thickets of coyote brush. It is near here that the Limantour elk crossed into the pastoral zone soon after they were let go into the wilderness. Today, the elk routinely graze a stone's throw from the cows — and this interaction, some ranchers say, is a serious problem.

"It's almost impossible to have dairy ranches with the elk there," said Bill Niman, a rancher with 206 acres on the Point Reyes peninsula. "They jump over fences, they eat the same food as cattle, and — guess what? — they reproduce."

Watt, at Sonoma State University, also said the elk threaten the ranchers' livelihoods in a direct way. If the big deer eat too much of the park's grass, she explained, ranchers may be forced to buy feed from offsite — a maneuver that can imperil their certified organic status.

"With the difference in price between organic and conventional milk, that would cause the ranchers to go out of business," Watt said.

About 6,000 cattle graze on the peninsula — 10 times the current elk population. Still, the elk's numbers are growing quickly, creating an issue that park managers, ranchers, and naturalists all know will need to be addressed eventually, and it probably will be with specific language in the next park management plan. Because some of the elk are known to carry a chronic wasting disease — Johne's disease — relocating them to other parts of the state is not an option, and elk management in the future will almost certainly involve euthanizing them, probably with rifles.

In spite of clear disagreements and heated debates between sides, Herminjard and Evans are adamant that what some people call a conflict or controversy is actually a unique form of continuous collaboration between different user groups. They said mainstream media tends to falsely simplify the narrative in a negative light. Evans said his cattle and the wild elk graze the hills more or less oblivious to one another — mainly, he said, because he and Herminjard keep a manageable number of animals and rotate them through their pasture areas in a mathematical system aimed at promoting lush grass growth and building a healthy prairie ecosystem.

"We basically see our operation as a form of harvesting solar energy," Herminjard said.

She and Evans practice the basic land management tenets of carbon farming, a system of growing food in a way that locks carbon, drawn from the atmosphere via photosynthesis, in the ground by rarely or never tilling the soil. Most farms are carbon emitters, but carbon farming can make an operation carbon-neutral or -negative.

Herminjard and Evans consider their farm to be in harmony with natural ecosystems.

"But the story always seems to gravitate toward ranchers versus environmentalists, or ranchers versus the park service, or ranchers versus elk," Evans said.

Dave Press, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service, said grazing cattle can provide benefits for native animals and plants. Ponds created as drinking reservoirs for cattle in Point Reyes and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area happen to provide habitat for the endangered red-legged frog. Grazing also controls invasive weeds and in some cases has been shown to make more room for native plants. Press said the park service even has an arrangement with one rancher whose cattle are used specifically for this purpose.

Evans recounts how he and other ranchers in the park collaborated with ecologists about 15 years ago to aid an endangered population of frogs by strategically moving their animals through a pasture zone, which cleared out space for the amphibians during their mating season.