After opening the gate to the McClure Dairy last Sunday, more than 200 anti-ranching activists marched up the dusty road to stage a protest. Robert McClure, a fourth-generation rancher in the Point Reyes National Seashore, walked out to meet them.

After a surprisingly diplomatic exchange between the parties, Mr. McClure and his staff stood at the perimeter of the group to observe the proceedings. The protest featured speakers from several organizing groups, including ForElk, the TreeSpirit Project, In Defense of Animals and Rancho Compasión. They called for the cessation of animal agriculture in the park, and for the park to refrain from culling the tule elk.  

The protest came a week after the release of a final plan for the management of 28,000 acres historically leased for ranching in the seashore and the northern reaches of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The plan includes longer leases for ranchers and increased management of the free-ranging elk herds that conflict with their operations. 

“This is the home of the tule elk, but look around and what do you see?” Diana Oppenheim, the founder of ForElk, asked the crowd on Sunday. “The National Park Service has failed this ecosystem. The National Park Service has failed the elk. And the National Park Service has failed us.”

Ms. Oppenheim, a former seashore volunteer, founded her campaign several years ago after learning about the park’s planning process. She told the Light that she was not necessarily against ranching, but rather doing so on park lands. “We’re seeing the continuation of the ranching industry at the expense of wildlife in the national park,” she said. “This protest was borne in outrage of the final plan.”

Activism by ForELK and its partners has ratcheted up. In August, they rang the alarm over limited water supply in the elk enclosure at Tomales Point, claiming it had caused several recent elk deaths. Despite assurances from biologists that there was adequate water in the fenced area, activists ignored possible legal ramifications and carried water inside the enclosure.

Ms. Oppenheim said she shares a common mission with the three groups that compelled the park service to take up the environmental impact statement on the general management plan amendment through litigation four years ago, but she also set herself apart. “We have a different approach,” she said. 

The park service disapproved of the action on Sunday. “The demonstration was conducted without the necessary permit, and in a manner and location that disrupted authorized ranching activities. While the park appreciates the demonstrators were respectful of the ranch operator who allowed them to gather on ranch premises, the park does not approve of or condone the organizers’ actions and their disregard of the required coordination with the park on First Amendment activities,” the seashore stated.  

Although the park’s plan is all but final, Ms. Oppenheim asked protestors to take several actions, including writing to their representatives, before the regional director of the park service signs a record of decision. That could be as soon as this month.  

Ms. Oppenheim said she supported the alternative that the park agreed to explore as part of its settlement, which outlined phasing out all ranching operations within five years. Under that scenario, the elk at Tomales Point would be let out such that all three tule elk herds would roam free, and the park service would not cull. 

Although the other groups present on Sunday joined the cause more recently, their perspective is similar. “This is a microcosm of a national issue: Ranchers around the country are picking off our native wildlife,” said Fleur Dawes, a spokeswoman for In Defense of Animals. Motioning to the calves standing near the protest, she continued, “Unfortunately, these are some other of the victims. These poor little baby cows that have been taken away from their moms. It’s a dying industry, and if we don’t win today, the elk will be just the first in a long line of animals that are going to be killed.”

Yet the time for public comment on the park’s plan has passed. Following the release of the final E.I.S. on Sept. 18, there is a minimum window of 30 days before the park’s regional director can sign a record of decision, allowing the seashore time to consult with regulatory agencies. 

The review is lengthy. The park must document compliance with the Clean Water Act for the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers; with the Coastal Zone Management Act for the California Coastal Commission; with the National Historic Preservation Act for the State Historic Preservation Office and Tribal Historic Preservation Office; and with the Endangered Species Act for the National Marine Fisheries Service and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.  

California Fish and Wildlife, the lead agency responsible for elk in the state, has already effectively approved the plans. Kristin Denryter, the coordinator for the agency’s elk and pronghorn program, pointed to comments offered on the draft document.

“We commend your agency on the work you have accomplished to bring the plan to its current state and agree that active management of the elk herds is necessary to balance management of cattle grazing and elk within P.R.N.S.,” wrote Kari Lewis, the wildlife branch chief, in a letter to the park superintendent last fall. “By addressing elk-cattle conflicts through various means, including exclusion and herd population maintenance, P.R.N.S. sets forth a pragmatic rationale for equitable management of public, natural, and agricultural resources on P.R.N.S.” 

Under the new plan, the park will step up its management of the two free-ranging herds, while leaving the fenced herd largely to its own devices, as it does not conflict with cattle. Some management strategies were already in use, but the park formalized its strategy: The park intends to mitigate the fact that the free-ranging herds will continue to roam ranchlands, including by helping ranchers repair and design better fences and by establishing additional resources for elk that could coax them away from pastures.

The most controversial aspect of the park’s management scheme is the new use of lethal removal. Using a forage model to estimate what the land can support, the park set a population target of 120 animals for the Drakes Beach herd. To maintain that number, park employees will shoot up to 18 elk per year. It did not set a target for the Limantour herd, though lethal removal could be used to prevent those individuals from establishing a new herd. 

Ms. Lewis, the wildlife branch chief, seconded the park’s opinion that this was the best option given the particular dynamics in Point Reyes. Most importantly, the presence of Johne’s disease in the park’s elk populations prevents the translocation of any animals to other herds in California. “Management of elk populations on P.R.N.S. will be necessary in perpetuity,” Ms. Lewis underscored.

Fish and Wildlife also agreed with the determination that an elk fence on the edge of the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area, a move suggested by some ranchers, “would be exceedingly difficult and prohibitively expensive to construct and maintain and would result in negative impacts to native wildlife.”

The park service discarded several other options to control the elk populations. In the final E.I.S., the park rejected contraceptive use as an alternative due to the difficulty in consistent treatment and to adverse biological effects. Surgical sterilization was rejected over fears it would further reduce genetic diversity, and the introduction of predators was thrown out. Bears might prey only opportunistically on elk, gray wolves are nonnative and mountain lions already inhabit the area, the park argued. 

Fish and Wildlife differed with the park only on its rationale for discounting managed hunting, which the park said would be more difficult than culling in terms of ensuring the removal of the correct numbers, ages and sexes.

Other tule elk herds in California are hunted under the strict management of Fish and Wildlife. In 2019, hunters participating in the agency’s public program harvested 113 tule elk out of the state’s population of nearly 6,000. (The three herds in Point Reyes together comprised 740 elk in 2019, or around 12 percent of the state’s population.) 

There are two other elk species in California, Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt elk. Statewide in 2019, Fish and Wildlife issued 281 public elk tags for hunting on both private and public lands. “It’s a very limited harvest, which we’ve been criticized for in the past,” Dr. Denryter said. In all areas where free-ranging herds overlap with agriculture, there are conflicts, she added. 

Outside of California, elk hunting takes place within several national park units, including Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

The seashore’s enabling legislation expressly allows hunting, but the new plan dismisses it. “A public hunting alternative was not carried forward for further analysis based on factors relating to safety and ranch operations. Drakes Beach is one of the most highly visited areas of Point Reyes. Although some areas could be temporarily closed during hunting efforts, visitor access would be impossible to entirely control given the open terrain in the park,” it states. 

As mandated by the lawsuit that compelled its preparation, the plan considers an entirely different scenario for elk management. Under it, “The existing free-ranging elk herds at Drakes Beach and Limantour could potentially expand to 2,800 individuals over a 20-year period,” the plan states. 

Although such a change would “result in long-term, beneficial impacts on elk movement and behavior patterns compared to existing conditions,” it adds that “population management would be needed at some point in the future, likely beyond 20 years. Further environmental review may be necessary to determine an appropriate population range for elk and management techniques to maintain elk with that range.”

Dave Press, the seashore’s longtime wildlife ecologist, said he has been inundated by calls from activists across the country. 

“We worked really hard on this plan to create that balance of managing both the natural resources in the park, and the cultural resources, specifically the historic ranching,” he said. “I think that this plan helps to perpetuate that balance that we already have out here and improve it in a lot of ways.” 

The plan shows how there are both benefits and detriments to ranching, and how the detriments are adequately mitigated by a lengthy list of best practices and mandatory measures, he said.  

Mr. Press sees some irony in the fact that activists acknowledge the impressive biodiversity on the same lands they say are threatened by ranching. “We’ve had active ranching in the park since it was established, and of course long before that as well, yet you have the opportunity to see bobcats, badgers, coyotes, great horned owls in the cypress trees,” he said. “We have some really healthy rangelands with really great native plant diversity that’s still grazed by cattle.”