Private Cattle Ranchers Force Eviction of Native Tule Elk in California

The noble native tule elk just received its notice from the U.S. Congress to vacate or be hunted down from its home national park.

A tule elk bull. Photo: Calius, CC

When in doubt, one can always trust the U.S. Congress to side with big business rather than anything that sounds like conservation.

This time it’s the House of Representatives that passed the bill in question. This one allows hunting or eviction of the native tule elk from the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California. That site is the only national park where these elk exist.

The legislation would enshrine private cattle ranching on 28,000 acres of public lands without any environmental assessment, sabotaging a public-planning process aimed at evaluating ranching impacts and resolving cattle conflicts with native wildlife.

“This shortsighted bill endangers hundreds of elk while handing control of irreplaceable coastal open space over to private interests,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The bill’s sponsors are doing an end run around an ongoing public-planning process. They’re undermining the park’s fundamental purpose by forcing the Park Service to prioritize commercial ranching at the expense of native wildlife and recreation.”

H.R. 6687, introduced by Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Rob Bishop (R-Utah), would require the Interior Department to maintain dairies and ranches on public lands by giving 20-year leases for private cattle grazing. The bill also would allow the Park Service to remove tule elk from these ranch lease areas or allow the elk to be shot. The bill was rushed through the House in less than a month.

The legislation undermines a public-planning process for the national park, which has received more than 2,500 comments in favor of keeping elk on these public lands and removing or scaling back ranching. In 2017 conservationists, ranchers and the Park Service agreed on a four-year plan to address cattle ranching and tule elk conflicts at Point Reyes through a public environmental review process and an amendment to the National Seashore’s management plan.

The Park Service was required to evaluate the environmental impacts of cattle ranching and consider a range of management options, as it does for activities in every national park. The public was to have input on where native wildlife and public access should trump commercial cattle ranching, but this bill kills that process.

The new bill, which still has to pass in the Senate to become law, is at least consistent with most other issues regarding the protection of nature vs. big business. The Trump administration, backed by the Republicans in both the Senate and the House, has systematically done almost everything it could to undermine long-established environmental protections on precious natural habitats which used to be public land. They opened up many of our National Preserves those for oil and gas exploration at virtually no cost and with few environmental protections, cut back on many square miles of National Parks for much the same reason, opened up our public National Monuments for private industry to destroy, and even sold out the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration for the first time since 1960.

Besides the risks to the tule elk when they move, a sad point is that – so far at least --reintroduction of tule elk to the Point Reyes peninsula has so far been a success story for conservation of native species and restoring ecosystem processes, one of the primary missions of the National Park Service.

The Drakes Beach elk herd, which the legislation aims to remove, is one of two free-roaming herds in the park. Letting elk roam free is critical to their survival. More than half the elk in the Tomales Point herd, which is fenced in on a peninsula to appease ranchers, died during a recent drought because of a lack of water and food.