POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE (KPIX) -- On Sunday, protesters staged an unusual photo op to highlight the conflict between cattle ranchers and a herd of elk at Point Reyes National Seashore.
The debate actually began in 1978 when a group of 30 tule elk were re-introduced onto the land, in a preserve enclosed by a three-mile-long fence. The herd has grown to about 450 animals and protesters say that, after last year's dry winter, the elk are now trapped behind the fence with a dwindling water supply.
On Sunday about 30 demonstrators assembled for a photo, reaching through the fence to dramatize the situation.
"They released pictures on Sept. 10 of water locations that they feel are adequate for the elk here," said protester Samantha Eachus. "But, if they were releasing those same pictures saying this was adequate water for the cattle, no one would buy that."
Christine Beekman, a parks service spokeswoman, cautioned that looks can be deceiving. While the surface ponds may have dried up the elk do have access to natural springs, she said.
"We've been taking photos of those seeps and springs and all seem to be running pretty heavily, pretty steadily," said Beekman.
The Park Service says it is monitoring the situation and, if the water supply becomes inadequate, staff will provide a watering trough in an area where the elk are already accustomed to finding water.
Matthew Polvorosa Kline has been photographing the elk herd for 12 years and said he is alarmed by the dead animals he's found there lately.
"My main concern was when I came across five of them in such a short time, that the last die-off we had happened right under the Park Service's nose," Kline said.
That die-off occurred during the 2013-2015 drought and wiped out nearly half the herd. The population has since rebounded but, this time, activists have begun hand-carrying water to the captive elk.
"That's why we're taking action now," said protest organizer Jack Gescheidt. "Because we're not going to wait around and take the Park Service at their word anymore because when they said it was fine before it was not."
Ultimately, the protesters want the fence removed and the elk and other wild animals to have the run of the park, meaning the cattle that have been there for generations would have to go.
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