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Activists, ranchers clash over proposed changes to Point Reyes nature preserve

Activists, ranchers clash over proposed changes to Point Reyes nature preserve
Activists, ranchers clash over proposed changes to Point Reyes nature preserve 03:05

MARIN - For several years during the drought, environmentalists criticized the National Park service for its management of a Tule Elk reserve at Tomales Point in western Marin County. But recently, a change was announced to the management plan that has the entire region up in arms.

On June 9th, the National Park Service sent out a press release that shocked everyone in the fight over the Tule Elk Reserve at Tomales Point, announcing a proposed change to the general plan: "The proposed action would include removal of the tule elk fence and temporary water systems installed during the most recent drought." It seems no one on either side saw that coming.

"Sudden announcement, blindsided all of us--delightfully so--that the Park Service is proposing finally removing this fence. Out of the blue...had no idea that was coming," said Jack Gescheidt, an elk activist and consultant for In Defense of Animals.

During the drought, roughly a third of the elk in the reserve died from thirst or deprivation. Activists, including Gescheidt, demanded the fence be removed to allow the elk to roam freely into the pasture lands of the adjacent cattle ranches.

"Hundreds of elk have died inside this so-called 'reserve,'" he said, "It's a reserve that is actually lethal to elk contained within it when it's hot and dry, which it increasingly is because of climate crisis."

Gescheidt is suing the government over the elk deaths, but he really wants the complete removal of the cattle ranches from the park. So, the Park Service's announcement blindsided the ranchers, as well.

"I think it's a shock. By taking the fence down, it pretty much determines that there won't be ranching in the park," said Albert Straus, founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery.

His company buys milk from organic dairies located at Tomales Point, and Straus said elk are aggressive foragers and will push cattle out in competition for food and water.

"And if they grow in numbers, it will just make in impossible to farm out in the park," he said.

Both men acknowledge that removing the fence would have an impact on the ranches, but the activists think they have no business being there in the first place. The ranchers feel they're now being demonized for operating farms that have existed for more than 150 years. The concern is whether the elk fence proposal is a signal that the government wants that tradition to end.

"You won't will be the end of farming in Point Reyes," said Straus.

"It's the first necessary step," said Gescheidt, gesturing to the fence. "But there are more steps necessary before this thing comes down, elk are released, and are freed inside a national park, where they should be free."

A recently approved management plan includes new 20-year leases for the ranches, but that's being held up by the courts. There are concerns whether changes to that plan would also threaten those leases. The fence removal proposal doesn't include many details, it just raises a lot of questions...including questions about the future of ranching in the park.

The Park Service will begin a public review and comment period on the proposal this summer, with a final decision expected in the summer of 2024.

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