Park refutes activists’ claim that elk lack water

David Briggs
Activists carried 150 gallons of water and two troughs into the Tomales Point tule elk reserve on Sunday. The action was part publicity stunt: The organization believes the fence that encloses the herd should be taken down and that the park service has a mandate to truck in water when natural sources dry up.   
09/02/2020

Despite statements by Point Reyes National Seashore officials that the tule elk herd within the fenced enclosure at Tomales Point have an adequate natural water supply, activists are ringing an alarm. Last Sunday, around a dozen people took matters into their own hands, carrying buckets of water into the enclosure and filling troughs they brought with them. 

Fairfax resident Jack Gescheidt was among those who made the trek with a five-gallon water jug. “Why wait until there are more dead elk to conclude that there is a shortage of water for hundreds of elk in a drought that is going to continue in drought season? Why not act now and put out water for the animals you have penned behind fences?” he asked. “Their contingency plan is, in effect, what we did on our own without permission, because apparently we care more about the animals than the park service does.”

The park service released a statement following the weekend incident. “Taking action without permits and permissions from the NPS and while the park is entirely closed to all public access due to the Woodward Fire is unlawful,” it read. “The park has communicated with concerned citizens that our monitoring indicates adequate water is available. We have park staff, who are authorized to be in this otherwise closed area, monitoring water availability for the elk at Tomales Point today." 

Mr. Gescheidt, a 60-year-old photographer who described this as his first animal rights action, was the only one willing to be named, considering the legal ramifications. Yet last week, numerous organizations petitioned the park service to take down the three-mile fence that creates the 2,600-acre enclosure, which has separated the herd from adjacent cattle ranches since 1978.

The groups reported that six elk carcasses had been found on the point in August, though the park has not determined the cause of their death. It may not have been thirst: Despite a year of abnormally low rainfall, the seashore’s wildlife ecologist and acting natural resource lead, Dave Press, said the creeks, seeps and springs that the Tomales Point elk rely on during the dry months are still flowing. The largest of a series of defunct cattle stock ponds remains filled with water, he added. 

“Mortality is a natural process that helps to regulate ungulate population sizes, keeps the elk within the carrying capacity limits of Tomales Point, and protects the point from problems that could arise from an overabundance of elk,” Mr. Press said.

The uproar over water supply comes as the public awaits the park’s release of a final environmental impact statement for the seashore. That document will determine the future management scheme for 28,000 acres where existing cattle and dairy ranches dating back to the mid-1800s lease land and where two other, free-ranging elk herds roam. 

The preferred alternative the park chose in the draft document would maintain the historic ranches and cull up to 15 elk per year to minimize conflicts with their operations. The park has five other possible scenarios to choose from in the final document, which is due for release any day.  

The environmental impact statement, which was compelled by litigation brought in 2016 by three organizations who fiercely oppose ranching, does not evaluate the management of the herd on Tomales Point. Yet the one alternative that proposes to phase out all ranching in the seashore within five years does involve removing the fence at Tomales Point, to establish a third free-ranging herd.

The groups involved in the original litigation—the Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Watersheds Project and the Resource Renewal Institute—recently weighed in on the issue of water supply, challenging the park’s management and asking for the fence to be taken down in an eleventh-hour plug for the no-ranching alternative. Several other groups have started online petitions, including Rancho Compasión, In Defense of Animals, and ForELK.  

On Monday, a lawyer submitted a letter to the park service on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, taking a firmer stance. Katherine A. Meyer, the director for Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic, demanded the agency provide more information about the state of the water in the enclosure. She also asked the park to reopen the public comment period for the draft environmental impact statement, which was released last fall. 

“The fence prevents Tomales Point elk from gaining access to forage and water used by livestock owners who lease adjacent public land in the National Seashore for their cattle,” Ms. Meyer wrote. “Thus, although the cattle have access to water sources south of this fence, the tule elk—who, unlike the cattle, are required by federal law to be ‘conserved’—are denied such access by the National Park Service. This conflicts with the statutory mandate to conserve the elk.”

Melanie Gunn, the outreach coordinator for the seashore, told the Light that reopening the comment period was not a reasonable request. “The issue at hand is that the elk herd at Tomales Point is not and will not be managed or addressed by the [final E.I.S.], so requests to ‘reopen’ the comment period do not apply,” she explained.

Management of the Tomales Point herd will continue to be governed by a 1998 elk management plan, Ms. Gunn said. That plan recommends maintaining the fence. 

Tomales Point is the site of the original reintroduction of tule elk to the seashore. The species is endemic to California, with an estimated population of 500,000 animals in 1850 distributed throughout the coast, Central Valley and foothills. But just 20 years later, thanks to habitat loss and hunting, there were only a handful left. Part of a statewide effort to conserve the species, 10 individuals were moved to Tomales Point after the species had been absent on the land for over 150 years. 

By 1998, the herd size had surpassed 500 animals, one of the largest of the 22 herds in the state at that time. The park service’s plan established that year mostly calls for a hands-off approach to elk management, outlining a goal of “using minimal intrusion to regulate population size, where possible, as part of natural ecosystem processes.” 

In an effort to address the growing population at Tomales Point, the plan’s primary recommendation was to release some individuals, establishing a free-ranging herd elsewhere in the seashore. The plan stated that removing the fence at Tomales Point would only be considered “if and when ranching ceases on the adjacent lands” because “to open the Tomales Point elk range with adjacent lands under ranching could negatively impact both ranching and the elk habitat.”

Following the release of the 1998 plan, the park relocated 45 elk from Tomales Point to an area near Limantour Beach. But within weeks of their release from the pen, a few of the animals unexpectedly migrated to ranches near Drakes Beach, establishing a second free-ranging herd. Without guidance regarding the ensuing conflicts with ranches, the park began preparing a comprehensive ranch management plan, but was stymied by the lawsuit brought by three environmental groups in 2016.

California Fish and Wildlife, the lead agency in tule elk management statewide, made a recommendation in its 2018 Elk Conservation and Management Plan to evaluate the feasibility of releasing the individuals in California’s two other fenced tule elk herds into free-roaming conditions on adjacent land, or of moving animals to augment existing herds. But that was not its recommendation for the Tomales Point herd.

Kristin Denryter, coordinator of the elk and pronghorn program for Fish and Wildlife, told the Light this week that the presence of Johne’s disease, which has infected all three herds in Point Reyes, means they cannot be mixed with other herds in the state. 

Over time, the elk population on the point has fluctuated, ranging from around 300 to around 550 animals. At the end of 2019, there were 445 elk on the point, compared to the 164 in the Limantour herd and 138 in the Drakes Beach herd. The large number in the enclosure was a significant rebound from the drought years of 2012 to 2015, when the fenced herd’s population halved from 540 to 283 animals.

The 1998 elk management plan discusses the availability of water for the fenced herd. It notes that the six cattle ponds within the enclosure could represent an “artificially high water source” for the elk and concluded that “a return of the elk range to its native condition of seep-fed springs is considered desirable to maintaining viable populations.”

As a result, the 1998 plan does not prescribe the addition of supplemental water, or food, during drought conditions. 

In response to recent concerns, however, the park service released some information about a possible contingency plan to establish troughs should the natural seeps and springs run dry.

The action last weekend apparently followed through on such a plan, albeit illegally.

The park also warned about the possible unintended consequences of such an intervention. “Providing water in a trough is preferred over adding water to any dry ponds that occur within the reserve, partly because most added water would just drain into the dry soil initially. In addition, at least two of the ponds are known locations for the federally threatened California red-legged frog, which may be harmed by adding treated water. Ponds that go dry during part of the year cannot be invaded by American bullfrogs which are detrimental to California red-legged frog populations.”

The current wildfire has not changed the park’s position, according to Mr. Press. “The only elk herd possibly impacted by the Woodward Fire is the Limantour herd,” he said. “A portion of the Woodward Fire has burned through an area only occasionally used by the elk near Coast Camp. We have not been in the field to see if the Limantour herd, which mostly occupies the Muddy Hollow and Glenbrook drainages, has moved in any way due to heavy smoke or disturbance from the aerial firefighting activity.”