Twice each day, 80-year-old Betty Nunes ventures into the wet winds and murky fog that regularly blow across her coastal Marin ranch to feed her calves and check the land her family has worked for generations.
Usually, her 230 dairy cows aren’t the only creatures she finds munching grass in the green meadows of her farm.
The last several years, about 20 tule elk have taken up residence on Nunes’ historic “A Ranch,” one of a handful of private dairy farms and cattle ranches that sit inside the federally-owned Point Reyes National Seashore. Nunes’ dairy is located furthest down the thin peninsula, where land meets ocean. Visitors must drive through it to reach the park’s iconic lighthouse and the elephant seal and sea lion overlooks.
The elk have become as popular with tourists as the aquatic mammals, but they are a drain on Nunes’ bottom line because there isn’t enough grass for both elk and cows to thrive, she said.
Nunes and her fellow Point Reyes farmers would like the National Park Service to thin a group of elk called the Drakes Beach herd.
“We pay rent for those fields for our animals to graze, and they have to compete with the elk,” Nunes said. “It’s tough.”
Huffman’s legislation gives the park service authority to manage the elk to reduce the conflict with cattle. Park officials say they’re still deciding what to do, but it’s looking likely they will soon issue a plan that will call for killing some of the Drakes Beach herd, which grew from 76 animals in 2014 to 112 last year.
The controversial bill also would allow farmers like Nunes to continue their leases inside the national park for the next two decades.
Some environmental groups are fiercely opposed to killing the elk. Tule elk are North America’s smallest elk species (though males can top 800 pounds), and are only found in California. Once numbering close to 500,000 animals, they were nearly hunted to extinction during the Gold Rush. Thanks to reintroduction efforts such as the one on Point Reyes to restore the elk to some of their former habitats, there are now 21 herds totaling 3,800 animals in the Central Coast and the Central Valley.
In the early 2000s, groups of tule elk moved into the farms in the Drakes Beach area after splitting off from another herd that roams the park’s wilderness area. In total, more than 600 elk roam the seashore in three separate groups, whose numbers have steadily climbed since a handful were released to the park in 1978. Since 2014, the Drakes Beach herd has increased at a rate of about 14 percent a year.
“We’re going to sabotage a decade-long successful reintroduction of a native species into national parkland to benefit families who say they can’t accommodate the elk in any other way,” said Jeff Miller, a San Francisco-based advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups opposed to Huffman’s bill.
Part of the deal
Huffman’s bill passed the House in late September. Despite opposition from groups such as Miller’s, the legislation has a good shot of passing the U.S. Senate because California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, supports it, according to her office.
So how did Huffman, a liberal known for his staunch environmentalist views, end up co-sponsoring a bill with U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who environmentalists have described as “Public Enemy No. 1” in the fight over opening public land to commercial use?
To hear Huffman tell it, it’s because dairy farms and cattle ranches have existed at Point Reyes since the 1860s, and keeping them was part of the deal when, 100 years later, President John F. Kennedy signed the bill that acquired the land for a national park.
The government paid those original landowning families $50 million for their properties. The ranchers were allowed to lease them back and keep working their acres. Huffman said the agreement to let farmers operate private enterprises on the preserve was critical to obtaining the land – and keeping the Pacific Coast from being devoured by urban development.
“From the very beginning, Congress talked about this as ‘the pastoral zone,’” Huffman said in a phone interview. “It was always envisioned as this mosaic (of land use), to preserve the character of what was there. It was partially agriculture. It was partially wild lands and wilderness. That’s what parks do. They preserve this.”
Currently, two dozen dairy and ranching families have leases on the national seashore and on the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is also managed by the park service. In total, agriculture takes up about 28,000 acres – around a third of the federal land in the Point Reyes complex.
The farms pay the government to graze on the park. Beef ranchers pay roughly $7 a month per cow.That’s substantially more than what’s typically charged in most federal rangeland leases. But critics said it amounts to an environmentally destructive subsidy. They said it’s lower than what the ranchers would pay to graze on private land outside the park.
Nunes pays around $29,000 a year to lease the property from the federal government, according to the park service.
The farmers and ranchers said their outfits are small – each farm is only about 1,000 acres – and barely financially viable. The elk might be their tipping point with extra costs from repairing fencing the elk destroy and purchasing hay to supplement feed the cows aren’t getting from grazing. Many of the farms at Point Reyes are certified organic operations and also must contend with the rules for that designation. Organic dairies are required to graze the cattle on pastures for at least 120 days a year.
Birth control or bullets
Huffman’s bill doesn’t provide specifics for how to manage the Drakes Beach elk herd. Huffman said he’s leaving that up to the park service. Press said no decisions have been made. Park scientists are studying the elk and the Drakes Beach habitat to determine how many could coexist with the cattle.
But why kill the elk to keep the farmers happy, a decision that’s sure to be deeply unpopular in the region? Berkeley, epicenter of California’s environmental and animal-rights movements, is only an hour drive away. Environmentalists argue there are other options including contraception, moving the animals and fencing.
Dave Press, supervising wildlife ecologist at Point Reyes, said the non-lethal tools his agency has for containing the herd are less than ideal or could be a waste of time and money.
Press said fencing in the areas probably wouldn’t work because the elk have proven elsewhere in the park they would just find ways around it.
The proposed legislation does give park officials the option of moving some animals onto Native American lands or allowing local tribes to hunt them for ceremonial purposes. Moving elk off the park property likely isn’t feasible because an unknown number of elk at Point Reyes have Johne’s disease, a hard-to-detect, incurable gastrointestinal infection that can quickly spread in elk and livestock. Press said state wildlife officials likely wouldn’t grant a permit to move the elk, for fear of spreading the disease to new areas.
Another option is injecting the elk with contraception drugs, but Press said that’s an expensive, time-consuming process that requires capturing, tagging and providing booster shots every year or three, depending on the type of drug used. Female elk can live 20 years. The process of capturing the animals is extremely stressful on the skittish females to the point that some don’t survive it.
“You’re certainly going to end up with unintended mortalities,” Press said.
The park could allow recreational hunters on the property – the 1962 legislation President Kennedy signed gives the park the option of allowing hunting – but Press said that likely won’t happen, even though some hunters would pay the government top dollar for the privilege. Not only would sport hunting be unpopular, too many people are in the park, and the elk are too close to the farms to conduct a hunt safely, Press said.
Tule elk are not considered endangered. State wildlife officials even allow recreational hunters outside of Point Reyes to shoot a few of them each year. Tule elk hunt permits are issued in highly competitive lotteries, with some trophy hunters spending $45,000 or more at auction for one of the state-issued permits.
Should the park decide on a cull, the park will either hire professional sharpshooters or use park service personnel, possibly working with volunteers from local tribes, Press said.
It wouldn’t be the first time sharp shooters have shot antlered animals at Point Reyes.
In 2008, the park hired a wildlife management company to kill a herd of hundreds of nonnative fallow and axis deer that had been living on the park for decades and were competing with the native tule elk. The decision was incredibly controversial.
Opponents put up a “wailing wall” at park headquarters. Around the park and nearby towns, activist hung “wanted” posters featuring a photo of owner of the sharpshooting operation. They also hired helicopters to harass the gunners during their aerial sharpshooting operations.
Despite the inevitable disputes, the National Park Service has plenty of experience with such culls in recent years, as overcrowded deer and elk have become an issue at several parks around the country.
“What’s different here is we’d be doing it in support of ranching operations,” Press said. “People have a hard time wrapping their head around that.”
Longer leases, fewer farms
For some environmental groups, the problem is solved easily enough: The park service should eliminate some of the farms and ranches.
“Some of these leases clearly should be retired or the number of cattle reduced,” said Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “There’s a lot rangeland that’s just hammered because it’s overgrazed.”
In 2016, Miller’s group sued the park service to force the agency to study the environmental impacts the farms have on the parkland. In a settlement agreement, the park agreed to examine the whether the farms should be shut down or scaled back. Those studies, which also include figuring out what to do about the Drakes Beach elk herd, are underway.
The farmers are currently operating under five- or 10-year permits, but they’ve had recent support from the highest levels of the federal government to extend them for longer.
In 2012, President Barack Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar directed the park service to issue the lessees 20-year leases as part of a controversial decision to shut down a long-standing oyster farm inside the Point Reyes park boundaries.
Huffman said his bill is a guarantee of “the long-term certainty Ken Salazar promised” the farmers, and 20 years of protection from the environmental groups that would use the courts to shut them down.
“They’re going to sue again and again until they eventually get all agriculture out of the seashore,” Huffman said.
Several of the farmers on the Point Reyes ranches and dairies say they understand the elk are popular and have a right to live on the park. But with no natural predators to control their numbers, something needs to be done to prevent the continued growth of the herd.
“Somehow or another, they have to be controlled,” said Bob McClure, whose family has been on the Point Reyes “I Ranch” for five generations.
McClure said Huffman’s bill is critical to keeping Point Reyes agriculture in business. Many in the Bay Area have embraced the notion of eating locally sourced beef and milk products, with many shops on the outskirts of the park advertising local cheeses.
“I think a lot of the local environmental people realize that it comes from us,” McClure said. “When we’re not doing this anymore, that’s going to be gone.”
Nunes, the 80-year-old rancher, said she hopes Huffman’s bill passes so she can continue a family ranching tradition that started when the grandfather of her husband, George, bought the property in 1919, four decades before Kennedy signed the Point Reyes National Seashore Act into law.
The Nunes family was a relative newcomer to the “A Ranch.” It has had cattle on it since the 1860s, according to historical records.
George Nunes died in 2005. Now Betty runs the dairy with her son, Tim. She handles the day-to-day operations. Betty said she has no plans to stop, and hopes her three grandchildren will take over when she’s gone.
“Next year is going to be 100 years the family’s been here,” she said. “That’s hard to give up. It’s our lives.”