POINT REYES (BCN) – The National Park Service issued a record of decision Monday in response to reports of tule elk dying at Point Reyes National Seashore, allowing the continuation of commercial cattle ranching on park lands while making "improvements" to the elk population's management.
The record of decision for the NPS' general management plan for Point Reyes and the north district of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area will require infrastructure and operational changes that the agency said will allow cattle ranchers to co-exist with the elk population within the 28,000-acre planning area.
The Drakes Beach elk herd will be limited at roughly 140 elk as part of the management plan, allowing the park service to regularly cull the herd to prevent population growth, according to the park service.
"This plan strikes the right balance of recognizing the importance of ranching while also modernizing management approaches to protect park resources and the environment," Point Reyes Superintendent Craig Kenkel said in a statement. "Input gained throughout this planning process was critical to shaping the National Park Service's final plan."
Environmental and animal rights activists have criticized the National Park Service over the last year for its handling of the tule elk population, arguing that more than 150 elk have died on park lands since last year, amounting to more than one-third of the species' population.
At the root of the criticism, underscored in a lawsuit filed in June by Harvard Law School's Animal Law and Policy Clinic, is a fence on park service land that prevents the elk from grazing in the southern portion of their habitat, which is leased to private commercial ranchers.
Activists have argued the fence, intended to prevent competition for food and water between the cattle and tule elk, is instead preventing the elk population from accessing enough food and water to survive as drought conditions persist in the region.
Many of the dead elk that have been found on park grounds over the last year have shown signs of emaciation consistent with starvation and dehydration, according to environmentalists.
Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the park service's decision would cause "drastic harm" to Point Reyes' native wildlife populations, including the tule elk.
"It's a handout to a small number of private ranchers at the expense of the public, who actually owns Point Reyes and overwhelmingly opposes continued ranching and the killing of native tule elk," Miller said.
The full record of decision can be found at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=333&projectID=74313&documentID=115101.
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