New Point Reyes management plan riles up environmentalists — comment sought – San Francisco Chronicle
Ranchers in Point Reyes National Seashore would be allowed to grow crops, put up tourists in their barns and dramatically diversify their livestock operations if a voluminous proposal to extend grazing leases and cull a wild elk herd is adopted.
The National Park Service submitted for public review Thursday a draft environmental impact statement on how it proposes to manage 28,000 acres of agricultural land in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes seashore that has been the subject of a bitter fight over what should be done about the tule elk that charm tourists but gobble up grazing grass intended for cattle.
The Park Service’s preferred alternative of six options outlined would allow 10 to 15 elk to be killed every year so ranchers could produce cheese, plant crops, raise sheep, pigs, goats and chickens, and set up moneymaking tourist operations on their properties without having to constantly scare off muscular competitors with pointy horns.
“This is a shockingly anti-wildlife plan, and killing these elk will do nothing to fix or reduce the environmental damage caused by cattle ranching,” said Jeff Miller, senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, which supports allowing the elk herd free rein without interference from cows. “Allowing expansion of agricultural activities would inevitably lead to further conflicts with other native wildlife.”
It is a troubling conflict for many because it pits two almost sacred Bay Area environmental concepts against each other — sustainable organic farming and native wildlife conservation. Park officials say the controversial plan is an attempt to honor a commitment to agriculture made after the owners of the historic Point Reyes ranches supported creation of the park more than a half century ago.
The 652-page document is a much more detailed version of the park’s preliminary presentation, released last year, that proposed new 20-year leases for beef and dairy ranches at the seashore and “management” of the wild elk herd.
Cattle ranchers are currently allowed only five- or 10-year lease extensions and not permitted to pursue commercial operations or raise different animals without special permission.
The new document breaks the seashore into different zones — range, pasture, ranch core and resource protection, each with restrictions on what the area may be used for.
Melanie Gunn, outreach coordinator for the seashore, said the resource protection zones would be managed to protect the environment and natural resources, including elk. Cattle would be allowed on the range land, but no other livestock could be grazed there.
Public comment on Park Service’s plan
The public review and comment period is open until Sept. 23. The National Park Service will host two public meetings to share information and gather public feedback.
5 to 7 p.m.,Tuesday, Aug. 27, at the West Marin School, 11550 Shoreline Highway, Point Reyes Station.
5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 28
Bay Model Visitor Center, 2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito.
For more information and to comment:
Or write to:
GMP Amendment, c/o Superintendent
Point Reyes National Seashore
1 Bear Valley Road
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956
The big changes would happen in the pasture zones, where sheep, goats and chickens could graze along with cattle, and the ranch core zones, defined as areas up to 2.5 acres around ranch buildings, depending on what is agreed to in the individual ranch operating agreements.
The preferred alternative would allow farmers to raise pigs, chickens, sheep and goats, board horses, grow non-irrigated row crops like rye grass or oats, and make cheese in preexisting buildings in the ranch core areas. It would also allow public service activities, like ranch tours and overnight farm stays.
No tilling would be allowed — seed drills would be used instead — and the ranchers would have to keep livestock away from streams and take other measures to minimize impacts on the land, Gunn said.
“Some ranchers just want to continue what they are doing now and some ranchers are more creative and entrepreneurial,” Gunn said. “This is a way to continue to maintain our natural resources while respecting our cultural heritage.”
Miller said chickens and other farm animals would draw bobcats, coyotes and other predators to the ranches and create a whole new set of problems.
Gunn said the ranchers could have guard animals or fencing, but would not be allowed to kill predators that come looking for an easy meal.
Miller and other conservationists are most vehemently opposed to the provisions that would evict native elk after decades were spent trying to restore the historic herds.
Tule elk once were abundant across Northern California, with about 500,000 stretching from the lush floodplains of the Central Valley to the grassy coastal hills.
The herds were hunted relentlessly after the Gold Rush, and their habitat was converted to crops and cattle grazing land. They were thought to be extinct in 1874, when wealthy landowner Henry Miller discovered a dozen or so in Kern County. The herd grew, prompting reintroduction in several areas of California. Hunting the animals was banned in 1971.
In 1978, 10 tule elk were moved to the 2,600-acre Tomales Point Elk Reserve at Pierce Point. They did so well that the National Park Service moved 28 animals to the Limantour Beach area in 1999. Within two years, the free-ranging herd had split up, with some apparently swimming across Drakes Estero, where they began grazing among the cows near the historic ranches.
There were 124 tule elk in the Drakes Beach area, according to the last count in late 2018. The document released Thursday proposes keeping the ever-growing herd at 120 head.
Gunn said the park cannot relocate the animals outside the park because of concerns about the transmission of Johne’s disease, a contagious ailment that has been detected in members of the herd. There are no other places within the park where they will fit.
There aren’t any native predators that can be introduced, she said, unless locals want to bring in grizzly bears.
“At this point, the preferred alternative is to do lethal removal,” she said. “We anticipate removing 10 to 15 elk annually. We would do it at various times during the year using the safest method and ensuring that we maintain the sex ratio to keep a viable population.”
The public will have 45 days to comment on the draft environmental impact statement.
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @pfimrite
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