“How can the National Park Service trap and contain animals and not have them get water?” asked Gary Giacomini, a former Marin County supervisor who worked to protect Point Reyes from development. “It strikes me as absolutely preposterous, if not criminal, that the park service would let half the elk herd die by depriving them of water. Imagine if the (private) ranchers did that to their cows – they’d all be indicted.”, Ronnie Cohen, New York Times
Roaming Elk at Point Reyes Bedevil Ranchers in California
By RONNIE COHEN
Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. While some elk are fenced in, others roam freely, and they have been encroaching on ranch land. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times
POINT REYES, Calif. — Tule elk, an indigenous California breed rescued from the brink of extinction 140 years ago, graze on one side of a wire fence, while dairy cows feed on the other side here at Point Reyes National Seashore, about 30 miles north of San Francisco.
The wild elk and the domesticated cattle appear to share the breathtaking oceanfront bluff harmoniously. But a survey by the National Park Service revealed that 250 of the elk living in a penned-off reserve — nearly half the herd that was re-established in Point Reyes in 1978 — had died between December 2012 and December 2014, most likely from drought-related starvation and thirst. The elk live in a 2,600-acre enclosure at the northern tip of the peninsula.
During the same period, two free-roaming elk herds on the south end of the peninsula, outside the reserve, grew in number from 160 to 212. Ranchers complain that these elk trample their fences, feed on drought-limited forage and drink precious water meant for milk cows.
Ranchers complain that the free-range elk trample their fences and drink precious water meant for milk cows. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times
“There are ranchers who are literally on the brink of losing their operations because of the lack of forage and the damage from the elk,” said Jeffrey Creque, who farmed at Point Reyes for 25 years and now works on agricultural ecology projects.
The die-off in the elk refuge and the flourishing of the free-roaming flocks have rekindled a dispute over management of these majestic creatures found only in California, where they were half a million strong before the Gold Rush.
“How can the National Park Service trap and contain animals and not have them get water?” asked Gary Giacomini, a former Marin County supervisor who worked to protect Point Reyes from development. “It strikes me as absolutely preposterous, if not criminal, that the park service would let half the elk herd die by depriving them of water. Imagine if the ranchers did that to their cows — they’d all be indicted.”
In defense of the park service, David Press, a wildlife ecologist with the agency, said the plan for managing the elk preserve “wasn’t written in light of the worst drought in records.”
The problem of the tule elk — named after the sedgelike vegetation they favor and pronounced “too-ly” — pits conservationists, who want wild animals to roam the national seashore freely, against ranchers, who want to confine the elk behind fences.
The ranchers’ interests have been integral to the preservation of the 70,000 acres of national seashore here, which President John F. Kennedy established in 1962. In the years that followed, the ranchers agreed to sell their properties to the park service in exchange for the right to lease them back at below-market rates and continue to graze cattle.
Today, about two dozen families farm here in what is seen as a model for sustainable agriculture. At the same time, the national seashore attracts two and a half million visitors a year. Many are drawn to the tule elk, particularly in summer, when males bugle and duel with four-foot antlers in a rivalry for females.
“Point Reyes can be, and is, a shining example of how small-scale family farming and the protection of national park resources can coexist,” said Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.
“It’s tricky, because you’re managing this magnificent success story of recovery of the native tule elk population,” Ms. Trainer said. “But you have to manage it so you’re not impacting the viability of the agricultural operations.”
As many as 1,000 elk once roamed the area, but by the 1800s, after ranchers converted the habitat to grazing land and hunters killed the elk, the native species all but vanished.
In 1874, four years after the last tule elk had been seen, ranch hands discovered a few survivors in a San Joaquin Valley marsh, and bred and cultivated them to try to restore the species. More than 100 years later, in 1978, the park service brought two bulls and eight females to Point Reyes, erected a three-mile fence and confined them to a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Drakes Bay at Tomales Point.
The elk reproduced quickly. After rangers counted 465 in 1997, they began firing contraceptive darts at females from helicopters. Biologists then moved 45 elk from the fenced refuge to an open area.
The free-range elk now live in the wilderness as well as on ranch land. One rancher awoke recently to more than two dozen elk in a field next to her cow pasture.
“The elk were supposed to remain in the wilderness and were not supposed to be in the pastoral zone,” the rancher, Nichola Spaletta, said as she prepared to corral her milk cows. “We’ve been forced to live with elk for years, and we would like them placed where they belong.”
Dr. Creque, the former farmer, faulted the park service for failing to manage the elk properly. “The fact that you had 250 elk die of starvation out there tells me that ecologically, we have a problem,” he said. “Clearly the carrying capacity of the land has been exceeded.”
Mr. Press of the park service is optimistic that there has been enough precipitation this winter and spring to carry the preserve’s elk herd through the summer. But if rain-fed ponds dry up, the park service will consider hauling water into the preserve, he said.
The park service is also devising a management plan for the free-roaming elk. Possibilities for culling the herd include dart-administered contraception, scaring the elk away from ranches (a procedure known in wildlife terms as “hazing”) and even having park personnel hunt the elk and deliver their meat to homeless shelters. Not surprisingly, the latter option is seen as a last resort.
The park service is scheduled to release a draft management plan for the elk next year. But to ranchers here like Bob McClure, that could be too late.
Two elk that he calls “jailbreakers” from the preserve live on his 1,500 acres, far from his Holstein herd. But he fears the two elk could multiply to dozens and become pests.
“There’s no hunting to control the population,” he said. “We’re all on borrowed time.”
A version of this article appears in print on May 20, 2015, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: While Protected Elk Dwindle, Wild Herds Bedevil Ranchers