Ranchers say survival hinges on elk relocation

David Briggs
A herd of more than 70 tule elk graze daily at C Ranch, where they trample fences, drink from livestock ponds and eat expensive feed. The ranchers association says that if measures are not immediately taken, one ranch’s closure is imminent and the others will likely follow.

The National Park Service could be on the brink of destroying the heart of Point Reyes—the peninsula’s unique weaving of wilderness and agriculture. It is the rugged coastline and forested ridges juxtaposed against green pastures and whitewashed barns that visitors find so stunning. And it is the men and women working on these coastal farms and ranches who make living here desirable for many of us; we tolerate the tourists because we know our home is more than a tourist destination. It is a community grounded in agriculture. And it’s one of a few places modeling an intimate coexistence of cultivated and wild lands. 

But that identity is under threat.

Herds of free-ranging elk, reintroduced to Point Reyes National Seashore, are encroaching on leased pasturelands in the park’s pastoral zone—the area set aside for ranching when the park was established half a century ago. Elk are drawn to the rich grasses and water sources that these small producers, most of them certified organic and under strict grazing regulations, rely on for their survival. Fences are being trampled, and livestock, water and feed are disappearing. One ranch is spending more than $30,000 a year to counter the impacts from a resident herd of more than 70. That expense could soon shutter the family business.

Ranchers have for years pleaded with seashore officials to return the elk to wilderness areas, but their pleas have met deaf ears. In a fervent letter sent to Superintendent Cicely Muldoon last month, ranchers said current problems posed by elk guarantee an end to agriculture on the peninsula. It is time for Ms. Muldoon to listen. 

Seashore wildlife managers have experimented with ways to lure elk away from ranches, but these experiments are not promising. They say their hands are tied until they develop a new management plan, but such a plan would take years to finalize. It would cost taxpayer money and would invite input from far afield—input that would doubtless be shaped by the mass mailers of well-funded environmental groups. Meanwhile the elk population is expanding by 12 percent a year.

Ms. Muldoon has refused to find a collective solution, claiming that dealing with the ranchers as a group violates federal law. Instead she insists on seeking out individual solutions for individual ranches. This approach both undermines ranchers’ solidarity and forestalls an effective resolution; it is also based on a misinterpretation of law. Adding to ranchers’ anxiety is the fact that several are operating on lapsed leases—in some cases have been for years—due to stalling and a lack of communication on the part of the National Park Service, they say. 

The ranchers’ sense of vulnerability cannot be overstated.

At the heart of the elk dispute is a policy document with just enough ambiguous wording to generate opposing interpretations. The 1998 elk management plan does not explicitly address the potential of encroachment into the pastoral zone. But neither does it list the management of elk in that zone as “a management issue not covered by this Plan.” The ranchers, then, argue that a new document isn’t needed. This one is meant to be adaptive, and it does not say its policies don’t apply to ranchlands. 

Those policies are unambiguous: “Any depredations by elk on fences, crops, or other property would require mitigation actions to correct or avoid problems.” It continues: “The Seashore will be ready to recapture or destroy problem animals should these situations arise, or establish partnerships with state and county agencies with the necessary skills and personnel to assist with the recapture. The Seashore should be prepared to provide funding for compensating property damage if necessary. It may be possible for the Seashore to modify parts of the habitat to help prevent such occurrences, or construct barriers to dispersal.” It states that the elk are allowed to roam outside the Limantour wilderness area “as long as new home ranges are not established where conflicts with traffic corridors or neighbors are likely.”

It is unfortunate that the authors of the plan did not foresee the migration of elk into the pastoral zone, but it’s unfair to say the plan doesn’t provide a blueprint for averting the current crisis. To ask ranchers to wait months or years for effective mitigation measures shows blatant disregard for their welfare.

National Park Service leaders have for years instructed seashore officials to support the ranches by extending lease terms. Last November, when Ken Salazar announced he would not renew Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s operating permit, the Interior Secretary expressly declared support for continued ranching in the seashore. Elected representatives have called for the same. Yet Point Reyes ranchers feel increasingly undermined, intimidated and undervalued. Nothing has improved for them.

It is time for Cicely Muldoon to exercise her leadership by immediately and permanently relocating elk to wilderness areas. It would be a great first statement of her already three-year tenure here. Rather than wasting more public funds on planning processes that lend themselves to litigation and an embattled public, Ms. Muldoon should demonstrate her commitment to retaining agriculture as a vital piece of the seashore. In doing so she can pave the way for a transparent administration, inclusive decision-making and a rebirth of confidence in her neighboring community.