Can Point Reyes National Seashore Support Wildlife and Ranching Amid Climate Change? | Can This National Park Support Wildlife and Ranching Amid Climate Change?

Can Point Reyes National Seashore Support Wildlife and Ranching Amid Climate Change?

The National Park Service is working with a local tribe to determine how to safeguard the tule elk, which compete with cattle for forage in the dry season. A recent proposal to remove a fence has ranchers and dairy owners up in arms.

A herd of tule elk, overlooking Pierce Point Ranch and Tomales Bay.

A herd of tule elk, overlooking Pierce Point Ranch and Tomales Bay.

Tule elk are making their distinctive, trumpet-like calls in California this month, a mating season ritual that alerts all to their presence. The calls—or bugles—signal the arrival of fall in the Point Reyes National Seashore, the small peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean north of San Francisco that’s home to three tule elk herds. The seashore has played a vital part in the recovery story of tule elk, a species endemic to California that settlers drove to near extinction 150 years ago.

Yet in the face of climate change, the National Park Service and the local Indigenous tribe say they must reconsider their elk management in the seashore. During California’s recent drought, the state’s population of nearly 6,000 tule elk kept growing overall, but the some 10 percent that live in the seashore declined.

Half the largest herd—which lives in a 2,900-acre reserve with a fence that protects nearby ranches—died mostly due to insufficient forage. The Park Service recently proposed removing the fence, allowing the elk to join the two smaller herds that can already roam the seashore’s more than 71,000 acres of beaches, forests, and ranchlands.

“The fence is inhumane: Elk behind the fence aren’t allowed to roam, move, look for healthy food and healthy waters.”

The proposal was seen as a blow to local agriculture: Multigenerational ranching and dairying families, who operated before the seashore’s creation in 1962 and now lease the federal land, say more free elk could close their businesses. The proposal also marks a critical juncture in a years-long controversy over the ranches, an atypical allowance on National Park land, and reflects the public pressure of two current lawsuits: One pushes the Park Service to end ranching, while the other says it neglects the elk.

And as climate change has driven temperatures up, creating extraordinarily dry conditions at the seashore that are predicted to get more severe in the coming years, big questions loom about whether there’s enough water in the park to keep both populations of animals alive. Ag and elk coexist across the West, but it remains to be seen if that’s still possible in the seashore.

For many, the tule elk are a clear priority. “The fence is inhumane: Elk behind the fence aren’t allowed to roam, move, look for healthy food and healthy waters,” said Theresa Harlan (Kewa Pueblo/Jemez Pueblo), who is the adopted daughter of the last Indigenous family to live on the west shore of Tomales Bay—in today’s seashore—before being evicted. “To call yourself Indigenous, you also have to believe we’re all connected to each other: plants, animals, water. To know the elk are out there, held behind this fence and deprived of sustenance, is painful.”

Harlan is among many Indigenous people playing a growing role in the debate over the seashore. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria—a federally recognized tribe of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo peoples, whose cultural and ancestral territories include Marin and Sonoma Counties—is partnering with the Park Service to develop a new plan for the fenced tule elk, but the tribe hasn’t made any public statements about the ranches.

In 2021, the Park Service and Graton Rancheria signed a new 20-year agreement, creating a government-to-government partnership to manage natural and cultural resources—including the tule elk, a species of significance to the tribe. (A new Park Service co-stewardship policy is leading to similar agreements nationwide.)

The next step in the new tule elk plan—which considers the 2,900 fenced acres on the seashore’s Tomales Point—is an environmental assessment, which will be released next spring before a final decision. Last month, the Park Service asked for public input on three possible scenarios it’s considering: taking down the fence—highlighted as the “proposed action”—versus keeping the fence but managing elk numbers with lethal removal, or maintaining the current approach.

Notably, the proposal only looks at Tomales Point in the case of fence removal: It does not paint a picture of what the seashore as a whole would look like, including where the elk might go, what they would need to survive elsewhere, or how the new numbers—a roughly estimated 260 more on top of the current 340 free elk—might interact with the adjacent ranchlands.

A spokeswoman said the Park Service will ultimately consider the effect of fence removal on the ranches and dairies in the new plan—but it has yet to provide that information.

“This is a very important project and it requires a very thoughtful approach,” said Craig Kenkel, the seashore’s superintendent who previously managed Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, one of the only other parks that incorporates agriculture. He continued, “We’re very grateful to have the seashore’s federally recognized and affiliated tribe be part of this project.”

“By getting rid of these small family farms, we’re forcing dairy farms to get bigger and bigger and the whole food system to be less environmentally friendly and produce lower-quality food that’s not organic.”

Meanwhile, the local ranching community has expressed concern that taking down the fence could effectively drive out the seashore ranches, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places for their more than 150-year-old dairying legacy and boast some important names in the San Francisco Bay Area organic food scene, such as Marin Sun Farms, BN Ranch, and Straus Family Creamery.

Historically, after Congress established the seashore, most ranch owners sold their land to the Park Service in the ‘60s and ‘70s and negotiated reservations of use and occupancy, which evolved into leases with five- to 10-year terms. Twenty remaining families operate the ranches, where around 200 people—including ag workers and their families—also currently live.

Albert Straus, the CEO of Straus Family Creamery, said the seashore’s five organic dairies, two of which supply 15 percent of his creamery’s milk, may not survive. Elk are particularly challenging for the dairies: Not only do they threaten their economic viability—including by damaging fences, competing for forage, and eating hay—but also their organic certifications, which require cows on pasture at least 120 days per year.

Straus, who has a family legacy of preserving farmland, explained losing the farms will harm his business and the region at a challenging time: Drought conditions closed 11 dairies last year in Marin and Sonoma Counties, including one in the seashore. At the same time, the bulk of California’s dairies are now in the Central Valley, where industrial-scale farming is the norm and water is scarce.

“By getting rid of these small family farms, we’re forcing dairy farms to get bigger and bigger and the whole food system to be less environmentally friendly and produce lower-quality food that’s not organic,” Straus said. “I think this could be the demise of our farming and food system.”

Yet even before the fence proposal, the ranchers faced uncertainty: Due to the current litigation against the Park Service, their leases expire next year, though all parties are trying to reach a settlement.

Supporters are mobilizing. Straus, a new coalition he helped form, and a separate group of residents have implored local supervisors to have Marin County intervene in the current lawsuit on behalf of the ranchers; in a petition to the Park Service, the coalition also flagged state representatives. California politicians have historically gone to bat for the ranchers, even introducing federal legislation directing the Park Service to allow them to continue operating.

But Representative Jared Huffman, a long-time advocate of the ranchers, only underscored the uncertain future in a recent conversation with Civil Eats. “There are a lot of business decisions and policy decisions that are pretty fluid right now, and we have to consider and reconsider elk management and other policies as those circumstances change,” he said. Nothing is definite until the litigation resolves, but Huffman added, “Several of the dairies in the immediate vicinity of that elk fence are in transition and are quite likely to be leaving the seashore.”

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The Lawsuits in Play

The Park Service, which has tried to defend its ag allowance in the seashore for years, currently battles two lawsuits. Two years ago—at the end of a long legal battle that required the Park Service to conduct an extensive environmental review of the 28,000 acres of ranchlands—the agency renewed its support for ag: It decided to give the ranchers 20-year leases and start culling one of the two free elk herds to minimize their impacts. (The elk fence was left alone.)

Rejecting that outcome and amplifying the considerable public pushback, the same environmental groups—Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, and Resource Renewal Institute—sued again, effectively blocking the leases and the culling of the free elk herd.

“The Park Service prioritized the commercial needs of ranchers instead of providing maximum protection to the natural environment and supporting the public’s use and enjoyment of these majestic lands along the California coast,” the current suit states. The groups allege the Park Service’s decision—which amended the seashore’s general management plan and reflected consultation with numerous federal, state, and local agencies—violated the seashore enabling legislation and several federal laws. Environmental concerns abound in the lawsuit, including contentious water quality issues.

Meditation talks are underway between the Park Service, the three groups, and the ranchers, who intervened in the suit to have a seat at the table. An update is expected this month.

The second lawsuit that is currently in play was sparked after the fenced elk herd’s recent decline. In 2020, activists illegally carried water into the enclosure, raising alarm. When drought continued the next year, Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic sued the Park Service for negligence on behalf of several Californians who witnessed dead elk and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. The clinic, which lost in court, recently appealed the decision.

The public outcry, however, had an effect. The Park Service provided water to the elk and Graton Rancheria paid to install mineral licks in 2021. Later that year, the Park Service said they would update management documents—which date back to 1998—for the fenced elk. After seeking public input, the Park Service announced in June the fence might come down.

“We will do everything in our power to make sure that death fence comes down. We support managing Point Reyes for natural values, native wildlife, and public access, as the national park was intended.”

Echoing the Harvard lawsuit, a group of scientists—some of whom helped reintroduce the seashore’s first elk to the enclosure in 1978—has also criticized the Park Service’s management, which has allowed three other boom-and-bust cycles. The Park Service followed the 1998 plan to let some elk leave the fence—and the free Limantour and Drakes Beach herds are thriving—but the agency needed to do more, the scientists said.

(Particular challenges to regulating the herd—the largest of three fenced herds statewide—include wilderness areas such as Tomales Point that have certain restrictions, hunting is prohibited in the seashore, and the elk have Johne’s disease and can’t be relocated.)

After the Park Service decided to reconsider the fence, one of the concerned scientists, emeritus professor Reginald H. Barrett from the University of California, Berkeley, told Civil Eats that the agency must continue managing the elk—even in a hypothetical scenario where the fence comes down and all ranching stops. In that case, he said, the seashore might support 5,000 elk, but only if prescribed burning maintains the grasslands. The cows keep them grasslands now.

“The natural successional pattern for that land out there—all that land that’s now grazed—is it goes from grassland to coastal scrub, which is what we call the bush lupine, coyote brush, things like that,” Barrett said. “If it was solid coastal scrub, the elk [wouldn’t] do well . . . So, unless you burn it, eventually the carrying capacity for elk is going to slowly but surely go down.”

Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate for one of the litigating groups, Center for Biological Diversity, was glad the Park Service might take down the fence. “As far as the Tomales Point fence, the proposal to tear it down is a welcome change in direction from the Park Service, if they actually follow through on it,” he said in an email to Civil Eats. “We will do everything in our power to make sure that death fence comes down. We support managing Point Reyes for natural values, native wildlife, and public access, as the national park was intended.”

Native Perspectives

Graton Rancheria is now fully collaborating with the Park Service as it navigates the elk and ranching. Since Graton Rancheria and the Park Service signed their new agreement for a partnership, the tribe’s guidance in the seashore has become more visible, including in new restoration projects. Compared to previous seashore management plans produced before the agreement, the tribe’s input also plays a much bigger part in both the record of decision—the one offering ranchers 20-year leases now stalled by litigation—and the fenced elk plan that’s rolling out.

“We’re not so much against ranching per se, but it’s just that there are lots of things that have to be dealt with [related to] the ranching—with pollution and that sort of thing.”

“This agreement demonstrates the federal government’s respect for the tribe’s sovereignty and self-governance, and the tribe’s history within [the seashore],” Greg Sarris, Graton Rancheria’s tribal chairman, said in a public statement in 2021. “We are extremely happy and proud of this agreement and look forward to sharing, with the National Park Service, the responsibility for restoring and enhancing our ancestral lands at [the seashore]. This government-to-government partnership is a model for other tribes to partner with the Park Service and manage federal lands within tribal ancestral territories.” Sarris declined to be interviewed for this story.

The tribe, which closed enrollment years ago, does not represent all Indigenous people who trace their ancestry back to the seashore. Others have their own new local initiatives and perspectives.

Harlan—who is not an enrolled member of Graton Rancheria but has been extremely active in telling the history of Indigenous people in the seashore—would like to see the Park Service stop the ranching operations and manage the tule elk with Indigenous knowledge. “It just feels like an insult knowing that my tax money is helping to subsidize the very people who are the reason why our family is separated from our homelands,” she said. “The ranches for me are a continuing symbol of the colonial settlers that removed Tomales Bay Indians—Tamalko people—from their homelands and pushed them to the edges.”

Harlan founded the Alliance for Felix Cove, a nonprofit dedicated to “protecting, restoring, and rematriating” the cove on Tomales Bay and telling the story of the four generations of her family who lived there until they were evicted by ranchers in the early 1950s. Harlan envisions creating a living history center and garden at the cove, which she hopes the Park Service will rename Felix Cove and protect in the National Register of Historic Places.

Tule Elk at a distance, eating grass, at Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California.

In another local effort, the Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin—a group of Coast Miwok descendants who are not enrolled in Graton Rancheria—recently purchased 26 acres near the seashore, the first land back effort in Marin County. The council also has strong views about seashore management and has expressed some frustration that Graton Rancheria is the Park Service’s only official partner. After the Park Service indicated ranchers would have 20-year leases, the council sent a letter to Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo).

“[The plan] elevates 150-year-old ranching history over the documented 10,000-plus year Miwok history on the land now called Point Reyes National Seashore,” the council wrote. “While these immigrant families prospered on what had been Native land, disenfranchised Coast Miwok people were left to cope with the intergenerational trauma of the systemic murder by California authorities of thousands of their people, forced conscription as laborers, and other hateful policies, including separating children from their parents.”

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Speaking with Civil Eats, Joe Sanchez, a tribal elder on the council, said he liked the idea of taking down the fence. “We’re not so much against ranching per se, but it’s just that there are lots of things that have to be dealt with [related to] the ranching—with pollution and that sort of thing. The elk themselves were put in a really bad position with the fence and the drought,” he said.

Ranching Livelihoods

The ranchers have faced challenges in the park since the beginning, and they’ve had to collaborate with the Park Service and all its regulatory partners along the way. Nevertheless, following the announcement last summer that the Park Service was considering removing the fence, the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association—which represents most seashore ranchers—expressed shock in a letter to the agency and their representatives.

“Eliminating the fence unfairly allows the Park Service to place the burden of its own long-standing failures to manage the park—consistent with its own prior commitments and the operative elk management plan—onto the ranchers, who will pay the ultimate price with their very existence and livelihoods and homes on the seashore,” the group wrote.

Kevin Lunny, a third-generation beef rancher and a member of the association, said emotions are running high. Lunny was at the center of an earlier major agricultural controversy in Point Reyes, which resulted in the Park Service closing his oyster farm. In 2012, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said that the decision—which was extremely divisive—should not impact the ranches and directed the Park Service to offer them 20-year leases.

“It’s a time of uncertainty that has these families that have been here for generations nervous and afraid,” said Lunny. “But we’re in negotiations with the Park Service, which appears to be acting in good faith.”

The seashore ranch families intervened in the suit filed by the three environmental groups last year. Even before the proposed fence removal, a group of four ranchers—who have separate legal counsel than the association—wrote public declarations describing ways the Park Service makes running their businesses difficult, foremost the delayed long-term leases.

Beef rancher Julie Evans Rossotti said, “Whether intentional, inadvertent, the result of threatened or actual litigation, or politics, the delay and failure to issue the approved renewals and honor our land rights over the last decade has disrupted, interfered with, and now threatens to destroy the ability of my family to engage in meaningful short- and long-term planning and operations, care for our long-time employees, and ensure the ability of all of us to live and earn our livelihood[s].”

Short leases have many impacts: Despite strong interest, the ranchers haven’t been able to access local resources like carbon farming funding, which require long-term commitments. Furthermore, even though the Park Service’s amended seashore management plan offered longer leases, some ranchers have said that other aspects of the plan—which included all kinds of updated guidance—make it hard to remain viable, including restrictions on diversifying.

A National Take

Coexistence between ranching and elk is increasingly common as other habitat shrinks and elk populations grow. While still paling in comparison to their historic number of 10 million, the four elk subspecies in North America are rebounding. The ensuing conflicts with other land uses are more common in states like Colorado, which has over 280,000 elk compared to California’s 13,000 from three elk subspecies.

Hunting, the primary tool for managing elk on private and public lands in California and the nation, is prohibited in the seashore. But there are other strategies, including a variety of compensation programs other states are pioneering to support landowners’ coexistence with elk.

Working lands, which include ranches, provide key habitat for wildlife, according to Lesli Allison, the chief executive officer of the Western Landowners Alliance. The group advocates for working landowners—most of whom are private in the West—when conflicts arise with wildlife so they don’t sell to developers.

“Ranching is one of the very few economic activities that’s actually compatible with wildlife,” Allison said. “And while there are conflicts between grazing and other wildlife species, if you think about housing subdivisions, intensive row crop lands, intensive energy fields—none of those are as compatible. But those working lands, and private lands, need to stay economically viable or we lose that habitat—which is happening at an alarming rate.”

Arthur Middleton, a U.C. Berkeley professor who specializes in wildlife management and policy and serves as a wildlife adviser to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said he’s hoping to see a compromise reached in the seashore, though he’s not directly involved.

“I think that what we have at Point Reyes is a common scenario for the future of nature and of wildlife,” Middleton said. “It’s more common than not for us to find multiple uses overlapping on the same acre, and while I’m not the one to know what’s best at Point Reyes, I think it’s worth all of us trying hard to find a path and build new models of coexistence.”

Anna Guth is a freelance editor and reporter based in Marin County, California. Previously a staff writer for the Point Reyes Light, she has a degree in English and environmental studies from Wesleyan University. Read more >

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  1. Maggie Frazier
    I think an important question would be: Why do the native animals (Elk) HAVE to compete with domestic animals in the first place - in a NATIONAL SEASHORE!
    The pollution caused by cattle has been a problem for many years - the ranchs' garbage strewn here and there - again I repeat in a NATIONAL SEASHORE - a PARK!
  2. Kenneth Bouley
    Anna, good job with a difficult issue. Really appreciate all the live links, as well.

    Some questions and feedback:

    Although you say the statewide population of tule elk kept growing during the recent drought, the source you give has data only up until 2017. I have found it difficult to find more up to date data. As I read you, you imply the population is still growing, but that is controversial at best.

    Since you reference climate change, in my opinion, you might have mentioned the significant role of livestock agriculture in the crises. Another way of putting this is, instead of asking CAN Point Reyes support agriculture and elk, why not ask SHOULD it? Commercial agriculture is not part of the Seashore’s charter either in the Organic Act or the Point Reyes Enabling Legislation.

    Thank you for getting the ROUs right. Refreshing as every paper that handles this, including your Light alma mater, gets it wrong, every time.

    Albert’s Straus claim that closing dairies in a national park will force the food system to get less environmentally friendly is self-serving and inaccurate. This is a National Park which supports 30 or so endangered species. These operations pollute the area and displace habitat. And milk is overproduced. Albert is the fox and Point Reyes is his henhouse.

    If the dairies leave the seashore, as Rep. Huffman implies they might, a significant open question is whether those parcels will be converted to beef ranches or instead be legitimately restored.

    Regarding the environmental review you mention in the Lawsuits section, it perhaps should be noticed that the EIS found removing ranching from the Seashore would significantly benefit the air, water, soil, vegetation, and wildlife. The science here is clear and yet is repeatedly ignored.
    Regarding the public input the Tomales Point planning activities, it should be noted that the public reaction (4,264 comments) was almost unanimously in favor of removing the fence and ending ranching.

    Regarding Johne’s disease, it is strange to me how reporters consistently neglect to mention from whence they got it (the cattle.)

    The claim that cows preserve grasslands always comes from ranch advocates. It would not be hard to find plant ecologists who say the elk will do fine without the cows. Certainly better than being hazed and shot.

    Thank you for covering the general unheard Indigenous voices such as the Coast Miwok tribal Council and Theresa Harlan.

    Secretary Salazar did not direct NPS to offer the ranchers 20-year leases. He directed them to pursue doing so. The difference being, it is not an action an Interior Secretary can take in plain violation of several environmental laws. This is often described as a “promise” to ranchers, which is disingenuous and self-serving.

    Regarding the ranchers’ livelihood, perhaps it should be noted that several of the operators own tens of thousands of acres of land in Marin and Sonoma, most of which was bought soon after the sales in Point Reyes to form the park. Many of those parcels received tax payer easement funding through MALT, and pay significantly diminished property taxes due to the easements and under the Williamson Act.

    It's all well and good to describe the situation as NPS making the ranchers’ jobs difficult, but when one looks at the purpose of national parks, as well as the state of the environment today, it is quite clear that what’s happening is the ranchers are making it difficult for NPS to run a park inline with basic park principles.

    Reporting on the relative health of four elk subspecies together is misleading. There are somewhere less than 6,000 tule elk (last data 2017) and all of those have gone through a deeply disturbing genetic bottleneck of maybe 10 or 20 animals in the late 19th Century. Consultation with elk biologists would reinforce this.

    Finally, whether or not ranching is compatible with wildlife is an extremely charged claim which should not go unchallenged as the last word. In general, livestock as been a total disaster for wildlife, especially predators, and biodiversity. Claims to the contrary normally come from people with money involved and rely heavily on red herring arguments.
  3. It should be noted that development is not a possibility at Point Reyes Seashore and agriculture outside the national seashore is also protected from development threat through agricultural zoning and conservation easements. Ranchers who sold their land to the National Park Service, and were allowed to lease it back, are some of the county's largest landowners and could move their cattle operations to their own land outside the park. Though ranchers cry "displacement," in reality this means they will lose below-market leases at the park they have held on to for 60 years, not their livelihoods.
    • Lady Farmer
      It sounds like you have some history on this issue. The ranchers involved were original proponents of the Point Reyes Seashore being created for the specific objective or preserving the land.
      I would like to point out that the ranchers sold their land with the understanding/contract that such a sale would preserve the rural nature and ecological value of the land (ie prevent development) and it was with a contractural understanding that they could lease back their land in perpetuity for a particular rate. Whether they have below market leases or not - they created the Seashore and their lease payments were part of the original agreement that gives us such a wonderful resource. You can object to "settlers" getting access to such land - that is an issue for the California and (previously) Mexican government that issues such land grant deeds. Not the fault of current ranchers. (If you object to such land grant deeds I urge you to review the history of the land under your home in San Francisco or on the Peninsula. The land under your feet was taken from the Native folks too. So confiscating these Marin county farms may set the precedence for your Atherton home being confiscated in the future.) And one more note - if the elk herd has Johnes (which is incurable) there is a high incentive for ranchers to not allow them on their land and a HUGE public health risk through milk if the elk herds get on dairy herd lands and infect the milking cows. Will the State of California and the Tribes

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