Elk forage near McDonald Creek in Orick, California.

California’s native elk need your help

An environmentalist’s perspective on the decimation of biodiversity in the state

This past year, an estimated 152 native Tule elk died at Point Reyes National Seashore. This was the result of the elks’ one predator: local ranchers. For an area that is home to some of the richest biodiversity in California, this is dangerous news for both the elk and the environment.

In Humboldt County, the Roosevelt elk roam free and plentiful throughout the Redwood National and State Parks. The largest of the seven herds of this subspecies in the park amounts to 250 elk – about the same amount as the entire population of Tule elk in all of Point Reyes. The large, healthy population of Roosevelt elk provides a stark contrast to the dwindling numbers of Tule elk. Even though the elk population of Humboldt County is not at risk, declines in endemic Tule elk are sure to affect the entirety of biodiversity in the state.

The Tule elk lived alongside the native Coast Miwok peoples for thousands of years until the late 1800s, when European settlers stole the land of the Coast Miwok and decimated the elk. The herd rapidly became endangered. In the 1970s, however, the Park Service were able to fully restore the native Tule elk herd to Point Reyes. Unfortunately, greed and carelessness reared their heads again about eight years ago when the local ranchers agreed to put up elk fences in the area. These fences block the elk from accessing food and water sources and have led to the deaths of nearly half the herd.

Laura Cunningham, the California director of the Western Watersheds Project, is a native grass ecologist whose organization was part of the original lawsuit to perform an Environmental Impact Statement on the ranches of Point Reyes. Cunningham explained the direct effect the fences have had on the Tule elk.

“The 8-foot-tall elk exclusion fence that traps Tule elk within a ‘zoo’ on Tomales Point to keep them out of cattle pastures, actually is contributing to a drought die-off of Tule elk,” Cunningham said. “They cannot migrate out to find water and better forage, and about 150 elk have already died, from a recent National Park Service survey. The park refuses to provide water or supplemental nutrition to these trapped elk on the narrow spit of land with poor water sources. Meanwhile, ranchers have been sinking new wells and pumping more water to their cows, to keep them from colicing of dehydration during this drought.”

Point Reyes is known for its picturesque beaches, lagoons, marshes, estuaries, and forests and is the only National Seashore on the West Coast. One can visit the area and expect to see an abundance of wildlife, plantlife, and many, many cows, creating a glaringly obvious contrast between untouched nature and the destructive agriculture of the area. Behind this juxtaposition of nature and destruction is a long and sinister history between ranch expansion and the National Park Service.

Skyler Thomas, the creator of The Shame of Point Reyes film and blog, believes the National Park Service is not managing the park appropriately.

“At this stage the mismanagement of the park is so ludicrous that one can’t even claim they are struggling to balance the challenge of having ranching and wildlife in the same place,” Thomas said. “What we have been observing is an absolutely blatant bias in favor of the ranchers… Point Reyes could be a living classroom for scientists to observe firsthand how the Tule elk interact with the soil, plants, rocks, even other animals. No studies like that are taking place even with the non captive herd, which should tell you something about the mindset of the park staff. For the Tule elk themselves, being held captive is likely a drawn out death sentence for the herd.”

The war between ranching and the environment has only gotten worse. Last year, Point Reyes National Seashore released their General Land Management Plan. This plan grants 20-year leases to ranchers, allowing them to diversify their operations by expanding their ranches and adding new animals to their businesses. Most notably, the plan allows for the culling of native Tule elk. This means that the Park Service has agreed to kill a certain amount of the herd each year. “Protecting the natural world” is a slogan on the homepage of the National Park Service’s website. This statement reeks of hypocrisy.

Local environmental activist Ken Bouley believes the National Park Service has violated public trust.

“[Ranching] impoverishes the land, causes barren monocultures, invites invasive species, displaces habitat, and pollutes the waterways,” Bouley said. “It significantly reduces biodiversity. Ranching always does this, and if you hear any greenwashing about ‘regenerative ranching,’ ‘carbon farming,’ etc., reach for your wallet; it means don’t trust it. All they ever mean, as far as I can tell, is that it is possible to somewhat mitigate impact on the land. The studies are usually from the agriculture industry, or universities who receive a lot of money from the agriculture industry.”

Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the most biodiverse regions in California – a state that’s already a biodiversity hotspot. According to the National Park Service’s website, “Over 45% of North American avian species and nearly 18% of California’s plant species are found in the park, due to the variety of habitat and uniqueness of the geology.” Within the seashore, there are around thirty federally-listed threatened or endangered animal species and six threatened or endangered plant species. A critical part of this intricate ecosystem are the Tule elk. The irony of the National Park Service preaching these facts online and then proceeding to commit this shameful act against the fragile ecosystem is striking.

Matthew Polvorosa Kline is a local wildlife photographer who has been documenting the Pierce Point Tule elk herd for the last twelve years.

“This [California coastal prairie] is the most species-rich grassland type in North America,” Polvorosa Kline said. “In Point Reyes, you can find remnants of this severely diminished habitat type in areas where cattle are prevented from going or restricted from heavy grazing, and where the invasive grasses that ranchers planted stop. I’m not the only one who believes that this endangered habitat type would be far, far better with native grazers like the Tule elk. Consider a key plant species like eelgrass or an ecosystem like marine eelgrass meadows and the incredible amount of biodiversity found within them. There are concerns that agriculture runoff is potentially affecting healthy eelgrass meadows through eutrophication of waterways.

Diana Oppenheim, founder of ForElk.org, an independent organization in support of saving the Tule elk, said it’s especially important to keep the elk alive in Point Reyes. An unfortunate irony lies in the fact that out of the twenty-two herds who exist throughout the state, the Point Reyes herd is the only one that is not allowed to be hunted.

“The National Park is some of the most protected land in the world,” Oppenheim said. “And there are supposed to be higher protections there for the elk. I think it is a really important thing to keep them alive in Point Reyes because this is the place where they should be safest, yet the Park Service is now planning on shooting them.”

Six thousand cattle graze in Point Reyes National Seashore. There are now less than three hundred Tule elk in that same area. Biodiversity is being ripped from the earth and in its place lies the decaying carcasses of elk. This ratio of agriculture to native wildlife represents a mucher larger existential threat at hand. The planet simply cannot afford the extinction of any more species.

“Extinction is forever,” Oppenheim said. “This is the Tule elks’ second chance. We should be protecting them at all costs, not shooting them to protect industry.”

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