The majestic tule elk that lock antlers and lazily graze on the hillsides beside the Pacific Ocean are a popular attraction for visitors to Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County.
There’s just one problem: the elk in an area of the park known as Drakes Beach are eating too much grass, taking feed from the cattle that are grazing the family farms and ranches that have been in business inside the park’s boundaries for decades, well before the park was owned by the federal government.
The feds now plan to shoot a few of the elk each year to reduce the conflict with ranchers — a move that infuriates some environmental groups who’d rather see the cattle operations gone from the park.
On Thursday, the National Park Service opened up its draft environmental documents for 45 days of public comment. According to the documents, the government’s preferred plan is to limit the Drakes Beach herd to 120 adult animals.
If the plan was in place today, that would mean the Park Service would kill around four adult elk, since at the end of 2018, the Drakes Beach herd was made up of an estimated 124 total animals.
But due to the rapidly expanding size of the Drakes Beach herd, which grew to 112 animals in 2017 from 76 in 2014, the Park Service estimates that as many as 10 to 15 adult elk would likely be shot annually, the venison to be donated to local charities.
It wouldn’t be the first time the Park Service has conducted a cull of antlered animals inside the park, outraging the animal rights activists who are a powerful force in the Bay Area.
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.
Opponents put up a “wailing wall” at park headquarters. Around the park and nearby towns, activists 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.
Point Reyes spokeswoman Melanie Gunn said Thursday that the Park Service wouldn’t need to go to extremes under this plan. Park employees would likely kill a few elk at various times throughout the year, carefully selecting their targets for a proper ratio of males and females to ensure the herd stays viable.
The Park Service ruled out other alternatives to limit the elk population as being impracticable or unsafe, according to the documents.
The Park Service nixed using contraceptives on the elk or sterilizing them, saying it would be too labor intensive, expensive, the drugs aren’t very effective and handling the animals to administer drugs or perform surgeries would put the elk under dangerous stress.
Moving the elk also is out of the question because some Point Reyes elk are infected with the microbes that cause Johne’s Disease. Because of the risk of infecting other livestock and wildlife, state wildlife authorities wouldn’t allow them to be moved to new habitat outside the park, the documents say.
Bringing in recreational hunters to shoot the elk was deemed too impracticable. Due to safety concerns, the park would have to invest too much staff time and resources to train hunters and conduct a hunt safely, the documents say.
The documents outline a range of other alternatives to address the conflict between elk and livestock, including eliminating the dairies and ranches outright, and Point Reyes spokeswoman Melanie Gunn said the park is open to suggestions during the comment period.
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, 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.
A liberal congressional ally
While killing elk to keep ranchers happy outrages environmentalists such as the Center for Biological Diversity, keeping the livestock operations in the park has strong support from the region’s congressman, Rep. Jared Huffman, a top environmental advocate in Congress.
Huffman argues that the ranchers are a key reason why there’s a park at Point Reyes in the first place, preventing that part of the Pacific Coast from being devoured by urban sprawl.
In the 1960s, Congress passed a law that paid the original landowning families $50 million for their properties. The ranchers were allowed to lease them back and keep working their acres.
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 parkland.
“From the very beginning, Congress talked about this as ‘the pastoral zone,’” Huffman told The Bee last year. “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.”
Gunn, the Point Reyes spokeswoman, says a final decision is likely to be made early next year, and, barring lawsuits or other challenges, officials could begin shooting the elk before the end of 2020.