NPS Ecological Mismanagement at Point Reyes: By Design?

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Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore

Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore

The National Park Service (NPS) was able to shut down Drakes Bay Oyster Company at Point Reyes National Seashore by falsifying data about environmental damage it claimed the oyster company caused. Now NPS is targeting ranchers for removal from Point Reyes. Here is the latest update on the NPS campaign.

The op-ed below by Sarah Rolph was first published in the West Marin Citizen on April 23, 2015. This edited version with photos and links is published here with permission. 

The Center for Biological Diversity’s (CBD) media campaign featuring 250 dead elk at Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) stands as the latest example of the ongoing assault on agriculture within the PRNS. While the PRNS’s failure to follow its own elk management plan led directly to the death of these animals, CBD has chosen to blame this unfortunate situation on the PRNS ranchers. Following on the heels of the successful NPS destruction of California’s most important shellfish operation in Drakes Estero, and coming as it does in the midst of a dubious NPS Ranch Management Planning process, CBD’s mendacious press releases on the elk question must be understood within the larger context of the decades-long effort by environmental zealots to eliminate agriculture from the Point.

Most of the elk cited by CBD (186 of the 250) died over two years ago, between 2012 and 2013, and this is not the first time the population of the Tule Elk Reserve at Pierce Point has exceeded carrying capacity. A 1986 study estimated its optimum carrying capacity at 140 animals, and predicted the population would stabilize at that level (it didn’t). A study in the early 1990s estimated the carrying capacity of the Reserve at 350 elk. No known science has ever suggested the Reserve could carry more than that–certainly not the 540 animals cited by the CBD.

Yet NPS routinely lets the population spike to over 500 animals. Each time this happens there is a die-off. This passive approach is what wildlife management looks like at PRNS.

A Plan Abandoned

In 1998 the agency conducted an Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment and selected Alternative A, “Manage Elk Using Relocations and Scientific Techniques.” The plan calls for the continuation of contraception tests on elk, and for research that would “explore methods to alter elk population size where necessary, looking at food and water resources, predation, disease, and population control techniques.”

So PRNS approved a program for controlling the elk population 17 years ago. Such a program is a necessary part of managing re-introduced animals in a resource-limited environment. The contraception program PRNS was testing was working; those conducting that program were not told why it was ended. Controlled hunting, an option used often in other NPS units, was ruled out despite specific permission in the PRNS authorizing legislation.

Since PRNS has been unwilling to use hunting or contraception to manage the herd in its reserve, the only other option is natural selection. Given this, the resulting periodic die-offs of elk are entirely predictable and should be entirely unsurprising.

The Fence Did It!

The Center for Biological Diversity’s dead-elk campaign targets the fence at the Reserve, the headline on its press release blaring “250 Native Elk Die Inside Fenced-in Area.” Oddly, the National Park Service appears to be supporting this narrative. NPS official Dave Press is quoted in the online magazine National Parks Traveler as saying, after citing the drought, “I think the presence of the fence contributed to the severity of those impacts.” Is the PRNS’s chief biologist serious, blaming the logical result of this management failure on a fence?

In an apparent attempt to link the elk deaths to the PRNS ranches, the CBD’s press release contrasts the situation in the Reserve with the free-roaming herd: “While nearly half the elk inside the fenced area died, free-roaming Point Reyes elk herds with access to water increased by nearly a third during the same period.” This access to water is described by Dave Press in the National Parks Traveler interview as “Creeks that flow year-round, ponds.” The experience of the ranchers is that the elk drink the water in their stock tanks.

Let’s be clear: Incompetent NPS management of its elk herd at Pierce Point is not the fault of ranchers or ranching at Point Reyes. Point Reyes National Seashore is not large enough, nor does it contain enough natural predators, to sustain a population of elk at levels supportable by the available forage resources without either periodic massive die offs or management intervention.

Who Is Trying to Change What?

The CBD’s press release is full of highly misleading statements such as this:

“’The reintroduction of elk to the Point Reyes peninsula is a success story for conservation of native species, but the elk are in jeopardy of eviction to benefit a few lease holders,’ said Miller. ‘The Park Service already prioritizes commercial cattle grazing in Point Reyes. Now these subsidized ranchers want to dictate park policies that could eliminate native elk and harm predators and other wildlife.’”

This completely ignores the Pastoral Zone, the history and purpose of the PRNS, and the existence of the NPS 1998 Elk Management Plan. The CBD’s campaign is apparently designed to pressure the PRNS into abandoning its responsibilities under the PRNS authorization and previous National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review processes. And the CBD has the temerity to claim that it’s the ranchers who want to dictate park policies?

One of the alternatives considered during the 1998 Tule Elk Environmental Assessment was to allow the elk onto the ranchlands, as the CBD now wishes. That alternative, “Eliminate Restricted Range through Management Decisions,” was rejected. The decision was that the existing conditions would continue within the seashore—the elk would be managed in a way that would not change other permitted uses.

At first, PRNS followed its management plan. The 2001 annual report for the PRNS says of the new free-roaming herd, “Since their release, the new herd was carefully monitored to ensure animals remain within seashore boundaries, do not interfere with cattle ranches within the park, and are not shedding the organism that causes Johne’s disease.”

The PRNS’s subsequent decision (without public disclosure and at odds with stated policy) to allow the elk to establish in the pastoral zone puts PRNS in direct violation of its own elk management plan.

“Play By Our Rules”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a pressure group, known for its underhanded tactics. The CBD’s executive director, Keiran Suckling, makes no apology for these practices. In a 2009 interview with High Country News, he said, “The core talent of a successful environmental activist is not science and law. It’s campaigning instinct.”

Here is Suckling, from the same interview, explaining how he works, “New injunctions, new species listings and new bad press take a terrible toll on agency morale. When we stop the same timber sale three or four times running, the timber planners want to tear their hair out. They feel like their careers are being mocked and destroyed—and they are. So they become much more willing to play by our rules and at least get something done. Psychological warfare is a very underappreciated aspect of environmental campaigning.”

The current dead elk psychological warfare campaign is part of an ongoing anti-ranch campaign being conducted by the CBD in concert with PRNS on the occasion of the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP).

Last September, when PRNS announced that the public scoping comments on the Ranch CMP were available, the CBD issued a press release the very same day: “Public Overwhelmingly Supports Free-ranging Tule Elk Herd at Point Reyes National Seashore.” The CBD claimed, “The vast majority of 3,000 public comments on a ranch-management plan for Point Reyes National Seashore support allowing a free-roaming tule elk herd to stay at Outer Point Reyes rather than being fenced in or removed.” If you wonder how they read that many comments in time to write a press release the very same day, the answer is that they didn’t have to. They orchestrated those comments, as I reported at the time.

This is the same playbook used to shut down the oyster farm. Activists use their direct-mail expertise and their large email lists to generate lots of comments on the same theme from a misinformed public, creating the illusion of public support. PRNS coordinates with the activists behind the scenes, saying one thing while doing another.

Working together, professional activists and a corrupt government agency are taking control of West Marin. They have already destroyed one important cultural and economic resource. How much more damage will they be allowed to do?

Read Sarah Rolph’s last story on the subject, “Point Reyes Ranchers in the Crosshairs.”

The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund administered a litigation fund and a lawsuit that sought to help Drakes Bay Oyster Company remain in business at Point Reyes National Seashore.