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.