(CN) — Environmentalists sued the National Park Service on Monday claiming plans to expand cattle grazing operations at the Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco endanger the area’s native wildlife, particularly a herd of elk.
The Resource Renewal Institute and two other wildlife advocacy organizations claim the park service's management plan will create new 20-year leases for cattle and dairy ranchers who operate within the park boundaries.
"This plan is a giveaway to the cattle industry,” said Deborah Moskowitz, president of the Resource Renewal Institute. “It perpetuates decades of negligence by the very agency charged with protecting this national treasure.”
The presence of ranchers within the Point Reyes National Seashore has paved the way for a long-simmering dispute between park managers, who say agricultural uses were embedded in the original charter of the unique and spectacular nature preserve situated on a picturesque stretch of California coastline in northern Marin County.
“The park service has long mismanaged Point Reyes by allowing ranchers to use and abuse the park for private profit,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Now the agency wants to treat our beloved tule elk as expendable problem animals to be shot or removed.”
Tule elk are native to the area and a herd has long occupied a portion of the seashore blocked off from traditional ranches, some of which have been operating since the mid 1800s when California joined the union.
Because ranchers fear that elk disease can sometimes transfer to their cattle herds, the elk are siphoned off via a fence to a certain portion of the park. When the elk herd exceeds the capacity of its portion of the park, rangers often resort to culling the herd to the dismay of wildlife advocates and those who believe the park should be dedicated to strictly conservation interests.
“The park service is unlawfully prioritizing the commercial needs of ranchers over the natural environment and the public’s use and enjoyment of these majestic public lands,” said Lizzy Potter, a staff attorney at Advocates for the West, which represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The park service decided that ranching should continue in perpetuity without fully disclosing its plans or the environmental consequences.”
While the fight has brewed for decades, the latest installment dates back to a 2016 settlement between the park service, the conservationists and the ranchers.
At the time, there was optimism that comity could be reached among the groups with their diverse interests.
“Today, my ranch provides habitat for several threatened California native species including the California red-legged frog, is home to several native grasses, and provides pastoral habitat for an extremely diverse ecosystem,” said rancher David Evans, CEO of Marin Sun Farms, after the settlement was reached.
The settlement dictated the ranchers would have five-year leases instead of the traditional 20-year versions and that the park service would generate a more long-term management plan.
“Issuing five-year leases, while still too short-term to truly secure the viability of small-scale ranching, is a step in the right direction towards long-term security for the families who, for generations, have made their livelihood growing food for our community and maintaining habitat for wild species here in the Seashore,” Evans said at the time.
But after the plan was finalized by the park service this year, the environmental organizations said the plan favored the ranchers at the expense of both the wildlife and the public. The environmental groups also note that the majority of public comments who weighed in during the process opposed ranching and favored more public access and less herd management plans that result in the death of elk.
“Point Reyes belongs to the public, not a handful of ranchers,” Miller said.
The National Park Service did not respond to an email requesting comment by press time.
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