Where Do Tule Elk Stand Now?

Where Do Tule Elk Stand Now?

Have you been wondering what’s up with the big, beautiful Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California?  Are they okay? Do the elk have enough water? Enough food? Haven’t they been freed yet? And what about all those private, polluting cattle ranchers who were already paid to leave, but refused to do so in the park? Will they ever, finally, be forced to leave? Well, here’s an update to answer many of your questions.

How Are the Tule Elk Inside the Point Reyes Tule Elk Reserve Doing Right Now?

They are doing well, thanks for asking!  They have adequate food and water because it’s the rainy season in California, and 2024 is already a very rainy year, as was last year: Marin County reservoirs are full as of February 1, 2024. 

The ponds inside the fenced Tule Elk Reserve — home of the largest of the three Point Reyes elk herds — are full.  Lots of rain means vegetation is now lush, so elk have plenty of forage to eat. We expect these conditions to last into the summer. From there it depends on how hot and dry the summer and autumn are. But by autumn, the fence may be close to being dismantled. This leads us to our next question.

Is the Tule Elk Reserve Fence Going to Come Down?

The National Park Service (NPS), which manages the park and the cattle ranch leases, made a historic recommendation in June 2023 to remove the fence that defines the 2,600-acre Tule Elk Reserve. 

This was our big victory last year: for the first time in 45 years, since the Reserve was created in 1978, the herd within — currently about 250 Tule elk, and likely more with 2024 spring births — would gain access to more of the park’s full 71,000 acres. 

Note that’s “more” and not “all” 71,000 acres of the park because complicating matters are the private cattle ranchers whose businesses occupy about one-third (26,000 acres) of this, some adjacent to the Reserve. This means future conflict between privately enslaved cattle and wild Tule elk, which is why the fence was built in the first place. 

Is Massive Cattle Ranch Manure Pollution Still Ongoing at Point Reyes?

The private cattle operators do not own the land; they merely lease it from the federal government. Technically, the public owns their ranchlands. And ranchers want to stay here forever because they have cheap lease rates that are subsidized by American taxpayers.

This is just one of the cattle industry’s dirty, not-so-little secrets which we activists are constantly broadcasting to the public and the media. Our truth-telling and myth-debunking are necessary to counter the industry’s public relations onslaught.

For instance, dairy industry billboards depict happy cartoon cows on green pastures devoid of manure. Public relations narratives are romanticized mythologies about “hard-working,” “small,” “local,” and “family” businesses acting as “stewards of the land.” Most of this is bull which a misinformed, misled public is sold, and buys, making them feel better about buying meat and dairy products.

How Bad Is the Water and Soil Pollution by the Cattle Industry?

Approximately 5,000 cattle held captive and exploited for dairy and meat products at the Seashore drink huge amounts of California’s precious, shrinking aquifers. (Winter rains are depleted in summer-autumn droughts.) The confined and abused cattle trample thousands of acres of parkland until it becomes bare dirt. They excrete literally millions of gallons of manure and urine into the park’s waterways: streams, bays, lagoons, and the Pacific Ocean without any treatment whatsoever.

Two years of citizen-activist-sponsored surface water testing — including testing sponsored by In Defense of Animals, thanks to your support — has documented ongoing cattle ranch water contamination. In 2021, 2022, and 2023, these damning reports won media attention and raised public awareness. This has been instrumental in stopping the NPS from rubber-stamping new 20-year operating leases to the ranchers.  This is another major Point Reyes elk activist achievement.

Despite a disappointing meeting last year when it seemed inevitable that the leases were on track to be approved, In November 2023, the California Coastal Commission held another meeting on the topic and did not approve ranchers getting another free pass to pollute with the 20-year leases they wanted. That’s a direct result of us activists showing up and speaking out to the Commission, including our own Jack Gescheidt in a Hazmat suit!

Meanwhile, ranchers keep lobbying for their dying, killer businesses. Sensing the turning tide of public sentiment, they are now pleading even more of their usual poverty story before the public, while never mentioning how they are already being heavily subsidized by taxpayer money.  Again, part of our ongoing work is countering their false narrative by continuing to speak the truth about ranch pollution and subsidies to their lobbying and political power.

What’s the Status of the Tule Elk Lawsuits?:

The Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve lawsuit, brought by the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Program, awaits an appellate court date oral arguments hearing on April 1, 2024. The case is now on appeal after the (lower) Oakland Superior Court decided in favor of the NPS.

Complicating matters is that since the lower court’s initial ruling, the NPS’s proposal to remove the Reserve’s fence potentially renders this entire case moot.  Because if the fence comes down at the end of this year, the Elk Reserve could be arguably less lethal to elk who will be freer to roam outside its existing boundaries to find more food and water. We “elktavists” speculate that elk will take months, even years, to adjust to the fence removal, especially those who live five or more miles north of the fence which is the Reserve’s southern border.

The second lawsuit, brought by three environmental groups — Western Watersheds Project, Resource Renewal Institute, and The Center for Biological Diversity — is more focused on water pollution and other lease violations by Point Reyes cattle operations. March 15, 2024, is the date currently set for the judge to issue a status report.  However, this date, like many court dates, can be pushed back, as it has been in this case before.

Court cases are typically maddeningly slow, as you know. Yet they can also be effective in helping animals and the environment upon which they (and we) depend. Time will tell. Again, we’ll keep you posted on any significant developments in either lawsuit.

What’s Next?  

The NPS is expected to release its most recent public comments survey, part of a lengthy process legally required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) this spring. Tens of thousands of public comments were submitted, and we anticipate the vast majority will support the NPS’s own proposal to “remove” (dismantle) the Tule Elk Reserve fence. This would free the elk herd confined inside to roam larger areas of the park and to access more water and food in California’s hot, dry summer-autumn season which made headlines in recent years by slowly and agonizingly killing hundreds of the elk trapped inside by starvation, and/or malnutrition, and/or thirst.

Once freed to wander outside the Reserve, Tule elk will inevitably encounter new problems with the private dairy and beef ranchers. For one, ranchers are expected to continue their decades-long, “oh-poor-us” lamentations about wild elk eating “their” grass and drinking “their” cattle water — all of which is on public land they don’t own; Americans do. This issue clearly demonstrates the inherent problem with private ranchers operating their businesses inside any national park, places where all wild animals, by law, are prioritized and supposed to roam free from human harassment of any kind.

Cattle also carry common cattle diseases from the industry’s typical overcrowding and resultant poor health. Even these “small” operations have hundreds of cattle, who typically contract diseases like Johnes [pronounced “YO-ness”] disease, which can be transmitted to elk via cow manure contamination of soil and waterways the animals share.  A 1979 study documented the presence of Johne's disease in 5 of 10 dairy herds tested at the Seashore.

All this puts the lie to the myth that domesticated animal herds don’t directly threaten and harm wild animal populations. They are two diametrically opposed uses of land. Commercial cattle operations pollute land, water, and the atmosphere; wild animal populations, which are not bred, confined, and exploited for profit, do not.

Can Tule Elk Be Shot? Wasn’t This A Possibility?

The short answer is no. About two years ago, the NPS stated it would not, as it calls shooting wild Tule elk to death, “cull” the herd. (A year earlier, the NPS had set arbitrary numbers for the size of each of the park’s three herds, and if any herd exceeded that number, their members could be subject to being shot (“culling”).

Now, with the likelihood of the fence being dismantled, it’s even less likely the NPS would shoot any of the park’s elk. Finally, if the agency ever dared to do it, including in secret, and word got out, holy heck would break out among activists, and then the public, and then the media, once again demonstrating that activism can be powerful and effective.

We Expect the Cattle Industry to Continue its Propaganda War.

This has already begun, with one prominent Marin County organic rancher pleading impending economic devastation to the public while never mentioning that cattlemen and women are heavily subsidized by that same public.

More and newer industry public relations continue. You’ll be hearing about “regenerative ranching,” a new-ish term piled atop the steamy heap of words like, “sustainable” and “small” and “local” and “historic” and “family-owned.” These terms sound good because they are designed to — but mean nothing legally.  “Organic” is the only term among them that is registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the term still has zero to do with animal confinement, abuse, cruelty, commodification, and of course the mass killing of cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and goats.

The Path Ahead; Our Work Continues.

Once the fence is dismantled, we will renew our focus on removing all the private, polluting, cattle-based businesses from Point Reyes National Seashore, as well as any new operations involving farmed animals planned by the ranchers. With ongoing advocacy, actions, and educating the public about how all cattle operations do ecological damage, and all cattle operations abuse the innocent, gentle cattle; exploited and slaughtered for unnecessary, unhealthy, luxury food products.

The good news is that by the end of 2024, it’s more likely than not that the Tule Elk Fence will finally be dismantled by the NPS. We will keep you updated about this historic progress, which will be accomplished in part by our ongoing advocacy and by caring supporters like you.

You can find the latest updates and ways to help at our Tule Elk campaign. Donations are always needed and very much appreciated. Thank you! We never would have made it this far without your compassionate and dedicated support.