Ranchers 
detail elk 
damages in public forum

05/08/2014

Ranchers in the Point Reyes National Seashore struggling with tule elk aired their concerns and fears directly to the public on Thursday, at a forum hosted by the West Marin Chamber of Commerce. 

Many of the ranchers have historically been wary of commenting publicly on the longstanding issue and how it damages their cattle operations, deferring to the county agricultural commissioner to explain their plight. But two seashore ranchers on the panel detailed their problems—including competition for forage, the destruction of fences and cows killed by elk—and a third called the presence of elk “morally wrong” during public comment.

Some locals in the audience were also exasperated that the park service sent no representative to join the panel, saying someone should have been there. The chamber’s president, Ramon Cadiz, said that Superintendent Cicely Muldoon had a previous engagement and could not attend.

The forum took place in the midst of the park’s six-week public scoping for its new ranching management plan, which will address the presence of tule elk in the pastoral zone as well as diversification of land use, longer 20-year leases and other concerns. On Tuesday, the park held a well-attended public scoping meeting at the Dance Palace Community Center, where people could ask questions of park staff and offer comments, which were dutifully noted by staff and transcribed with colorful markers on big posters taped to the walls. The ranchers made themselves name tags that said, “I am a seashore rancher! Ask me questions.”

The park has maintained that its 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan does not provide guidance for dealing with elk in the pastoral zone, only instructing the removal of elk on private lands. But the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association has opposed that interpretation, citing a 2001 park report discussing the importance of keeping the elk away from the ranches and pointing to an alternative plan, rejected by the park, that would have allowed herds to roam unfettered throughout the pastoral zone.

Ranchers fear the growth of the unfenced herds will exacerbate the problem. According to a 2011 dissertation by a University of California, Berkeley, doctoral student, the herd in Point Reyes’ pastoral zone could reach a population of close to 400 by 2018 without efforts to control them.

Dave Press, a wildlife ecologist for the park, questions that estimation, saying it took 10 years for the fenced-in Tomales herd to make a similar jump. Nevertheless, even with a herd of fewer than 100, ranchers say their livelihoods are under threat.

“It’s very hard to express our concerns, but things have only gotten worse,” said Nichola Spaletta, who lives on C Ranch, which the family has held for five generations.

She told the crowd of about 60 last Thursday evening that two elk appeared on her ranch over a decade ago, in 2000. The park told her they were sterile, and would swim back to the wilderness by way of Drakes Estero. But one elk calved, and later that year two males with radio collars showed up. At the time, then-seashore superintendent Don Neubacher discussed fencing, but he left his position before any plans were put in place. 

In 2010, when Cicely Muldoon took over, there were 40 resident elk at C Ranch. Now there are roughly 80.

Thursday’s panel featured another rancher, Gino Lucchesi, whose wife’s family has ranched for five generations. He runs cattle at Home Ranch, on the edge of the Limantour wilderness, and said in 2003 he had four elk. Now he has about 31 regulars and has seen up to 45 roaming on the land. “It impacts us a lot financially with cost of feed, feeding cows earlier and longer… We’re constantly repairing [fences], and it’s ridiculous. We hope that this can be taken care of sooner rather than later,” he said. 

During a question and answer session, a lifelong dairyman who was not on the panel, Joe Mendoza, of B Ranch, called the situation “morally wrong” because the ranchers didn’t agree to accommodate elk back when the park purchased the lands starting in the 1970s. Mr. Mendoza said he did not blame Ms. Muldoon, who began her post at the seashore after the elk had established themselves on ranchlands. 

The competition for grasses makes ranchers buy more hay and threatens their organic certification, since cows must graze a certain number of days a year and obtain at least 30 percent of their food from forage. Ranchers have also expressed concerns about keeping cattle on ranches when fences are damaged, and they fear exposure to Johne’s disease, an ailment that can be passed between ungulates like elk and cattle and can cause diarrhea and weight loss, preventing animals from absorbing nutrients.

And Ms. Spaletta said three of her animals have been killed by the elk during rutting season.

The park has responded to some of the problems by repairing fences themselves, offering ranchers supplies to fix them, hazing the elk and filling up nearby ponds to try to lure them off working pastures. 

But to Ms. Spaletta, those aren’t solutions. The only way agriculture on the peninsula can be viable, she said, is if the elk are removed from the pastoral zone and humanely relocated to wilderness areas.

Although the planning process for the new ranch management plan won’t finish until the fall of 2015, the park is hoping to capture and relocate three or four young elk from the pastoral zone and move them to the Limantour wilderness area. The experiment would help ecologists determine whether the animals would integrate with the Limantour herd, or simply return to pastures. 

But the experiment depends on guaranteeing that the elk are free of Johne’s, since the park does not want to accidentally infect the Limantour herd, and it would not take place until after rutting season ends in the fall. 

A retired professor of range ecology at the University of California, Davis, John Menke, who appeared via Skype at the chamber’s forum, said he was sympathetic to the rancher’s plight and believes the park should control the elk population in some way. But he questioned whether relocation could be a long-term solution, given both the stress that relocation has on animals and possible blowback from litigious animal welfare groups. So-called gathering programs, he said, easily draw lawsuits.

A few locals outside the ranching community also spoke on Thursday, one wondering why the problem was not foreseen. “If they reproduce that much [at Tomales Point], didn’t they see that they would reproduce out there [in Limantour] also?” asked Doris Ferrando, the operator of a bed and breakfast in Point Reyes Station. 

The park has said that they believed natural barriers would prevent the elk from reaching ranches.

Melanie Stone, the owner of Zuma in Point Reyes Station and half-sister to Ms. Spaletta, said if the park moved the elk to the Limantour wilderness without a plan to protect the ranches, it should “take responsibility… and protect the ranches until they come up with a plan that works.”

In the long term, Mr. Press told the Light on Tuesday that the solution would likely lie somewhere between two theoretical extremes: forbidding elk on ranches and imposing no limits at all. But what that happy medium is—and what to do when unfenced herds exceed sound population limits—won’t be known until the planning process is complete, he said.

At the public scoping meeting on Tuesday, some comments penned on posters were strongly in support of ranchers. “Why can’t you move the elk off ranches?” one comment said. Another argued that the park should become more familiar with the day-to-day life of ranchers. One person just commented, “Elk community barbecue.”

But others showed a soft spot for the elk, a native species extirpated from Point Reyes by 1860. “Incredible opportunity to restore the elk herd…they are native—cattle are non-native,” one person said. “Any lease agreement in pastoral lands should incorporate/protect free roaming elk into [the] lease,” said another.

Near the end of public questions at the chamber’s forum, Gordon Bennett, a local environmentalist, said he understood the situation necessitated short-term solutions, but asked Ms. Spaletta why she didn’t push the park to reimburse her for cows killed by elk. (The park later told the Light there is no blanket policy for compensation for cattle, and that there have been no documented instances of elk depredation.)

“I’m not taking any money from the park,” Ms. Spaletta said. She just wants them gone.