Coastal Commission Cosigns Federal Plan to Kill Native Elk

The goal of the cull program is to better manage existing tule elk herds in an area where some animals died from malnourishment during a drought last year.

A tule elk cow at Tomales Point, Point Reyes National Seashore, California. (By © Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link)

(CN) — On Earth Day, the California Coastal Commission conditionally approved a general management plan for a 28,700-acre federally owned park in the San Francisco Bay Area — a plan vehemently opposed by conservationists because it calls for killing native tule elk in an area where thousands of acres of federal land are leased to small dairy and cattle beef farmers.

The commission’s 5-4 conditional approval of the National Park Service plan following a 12-hour meeting Thursday paves the way for the federal agency to “reduce conflicts” between tule elk and the existing cattle ranches on Point Reyes National Seashore, 30 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County. Under the plan, park managers will maintain a population of 120 adult elk for one of the three Point Reyes herds.

On average, 12 to 15 elk will be killed annually under the plan.  

While the general management plan applies to federal land not within the Coastal Commission’s jurisdiction, the agency reviewed it for “spillover effects” that activities on federal lands can have on coastal resources, water quality and species subject to the Coastal Commission’s jurisdiction.

Coastal Commission staff who analyzed the management plan for consistency with the Coastal Act found killing elk living on federal land would not have a “spillover” effect on coastal resources, as the animals which would be killed live outside the coastal zone and the plan would maintain viable herd numbers in accordance with wildlife agency recommendations.

But several of the commissioners joined tens of thousands of animal rights and conservation advocates who submitted written comments and testified during the virtual meeting in opposing the management plan.

“It has become so obvious to me the elk are the second-class citizens in this report, in the park’s plan — I will not support it,” Commissioner Dayna Bochco said before voting against the plan.

“We don’t even look to parks to say ‘What are you going to do to help these animals? What is wrong with you,’” Bochco added.

Last year, an estimated one-third of one the tule elk herds died due to malnutrition, likely exacerbated by drought conditions which decimated the animals’ foraging habitat at Point Reyes.

National Park Service wildlife ecologist Dave Press noted the population of the Drakes Beach herd at Point Reyes — which normally increases 14% — only added one extra elk last year, going from 138 to 139 animals. He said it was another indication of the drought impacts on the tule elk.

Press confirmed the elk could not be moved to a different location in California, as suggested by some commissioners and animal advocates. The state has blocked animal relocation due to the spread of Johne’s disease, a fatal infection that affects the small intestines of afflicted animals.

“We looked at every angle possible,” Press said of alternatives to killing to the elk.

“There is no agency in North America that is managing elk through the use of contraceptives. We looked at relocating the elk, experimented with new locations, but the elk moved right back,” he added.

Under the general management plan, the park service will explore options to donate elk meat to local charities, the California condor program, tribal groups and for disease testing purposes.

Coastal commissioners and environmentalists also expressed concerns about water quality issues caused by fecal matter runoff from the dairy and beef cattle farms which contaminate the watershed at Point Reyes.

A nonprofit conducted a water quality study this past January following a storm and found high concentrations of contaminates in the Pacific Ocean at Point Reyes. The group’s report was cited as cause for concern by several commissioners and public speakers.

The park service has not conducted similar water quality tests since abandoning the practice in 2013. Ranching permits authorized to cattle farms under the new management plan will require ranchers to conduct water quality testing, according to National Park Service staff who answered questions during Thursday’s meeting.

“As part of its approval of the NPS plan the commission required the NPS bring back its water quality strategy and climate action strategy related to ranching activities for a public hearing within a year,” a Coastal Commission spokesperson confirmed Friday morning. “NPS will also be required to provide a progress report to the commission in five years.”

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