Rut Causes

Public comments reveal bitter divide in Point Reyes park plan

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The battle in Point Reyes National Seashore pits elk against cow, with the former providing better optics. Credit: James Knight

Although Point Reyes Station catches more than a few sunrays on a recent late-August day, the northern tip of the Seashore, which is administered by the National Park Service, gets the Pacific Ocean’s full fog-machine treatment.

At historic Pierce Point Ranch, a windbreak of gnarled trees just beyond the parking lot is hardly visible. Yet the bugling of unseen male tule elk is as clear as a bell. The term, “bugling,” with its upbeat, brass instrument connotations, doesn’t do justice to this haunting screech that’s about as wild as it gets, just an hour north of the Golden Gate.

The rut, when male elk (called bulls) compete for influence with groups of females (cows), takes place from August to October, and it’s one of the Seashore’s many natural resource features—along with whale and elephant seal viewing—that draw up to 2.4 million visitors each year.

There are plenty of other bulls and cows to see here, too.

More than 5,700 dairy cows and cattle graze on Seashore land leased to dairy and beef operations. But considering their smaller number, about 750 animals in free-ranging herds and fenced in at Pierce Point, the tule elk surely rank highly among visitors.

“It’s not a popularity contest,” says Melanie Gunn, outreach coordinator for the Seashore, about the latest invitation for public comments on the Seashore’s plans to manage ranches and elk in the future. The comment period for the General Management Plan Amendment Draft Environmental Impact Statement closed on Sept. 23.

“One really important thing for people to realize,” Gunn clarifies, “…it’s not a vote. And we try to make that clear to people. What we’re looking for is substantive information to inform the process.”

Previously, the Park sought to implement an updated Ranch Management Plan (RMP), consulting the public in a series of workshops and comment periods. But a coalition of environmental groups, frustrated that the process did not include an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), sued and halted it.

“Every park does it that way when they make a big management decision,” says Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “They do that through an environmental review.”

The park was trying to skip that step, according to Miller, who traces his activism in the park to family hiking trips when the Seashore opened in the 1960s. “When the park service tried to float the ranch plan, killing the elk was the last straw.”

The Amendment Draft now includes a more specific plan, “Alternative B,” to lethally remove elk from a contentious herd that shares pasture with cows, while extending ranch leases to 20-year terms. This is the NPS’s “preferred alternative.”

The statement does mention five more alternatives, from “no action” to “cessation of ranching operations.”

“It wasn’t about kicking ranchers out, which is what ranchers fall back on when anyone asks questions,” says Susan Ives, whose organization, Restore Point Reyes Seashore, encourages public commentary on the plan.

“It’s how to restore the native prairie—let’s try to bring back some of these native plants that are on the brink,” says Ives, who does not view the preferred alternative as an acceptable compromise. “There really weren’t a lot of alternatives that we could support.”

The Seashore will not release the public comments for several months, according to Gunn. Already, elk advocates are criticizing the process.

“I have helped to collect hundreds of comments from other citizens who also want the park to choose wildlife protection and restoration and to phase out ranching,” forELK founder Diana Oppenheim writes in a letter to park Superintendent Cicely Muldoon.

Melanie Gunn and the NPS refuse to accept those comments, stating a policy of not accepting bulk comments. “We can’t accept comments that have been submitted on behalf of others,” Gunn states. “So, we let that individual know, as soon as we got them, that she could take them back and ask individuals to send them.”

A preview of comments provided to the Pacific Sun highlight the disconnect between the Park Service mission, the environmental findings of the EIS and the preferred alternative. Among writers offering substantive perspectives, Ken Brower, who watched as a “fly on the wall” as his father, David Brower, worked with ranchers and politicians to establish the park, writes, “It is a historical falsehood—despite the widespread myth otherwise—that the park’s founders ever intended that ranching be permanent.”

Judd A. Howell, former ecologist and research scientist at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, questions why the Seashore’s 5,700 cattle units cannot tolerate 124 elk among them. “The notion that elk are a ‘problem’ is obviously misguided, since elk coexist with cattle on BLM and Forest Service grazing lands throughout the western U.S.,” he says.

It remains to be seen how many of the 7,000-plus comments received weigh in for or against the preferred alternative. Some may be classified as opinion only, and will not be incorporated at all, says Gunn. But they won’t be lost in the fog. “We provide a response to those comments.”

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