POINT REYES (AP) — Organic dairy ranchers are urging authorities to remove tule elk from agricultural land in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes seashore and build a large fence to keep them out, as a conflict pitting organic farmers and native wildlife conservation supporters against one another intensifies because of the drought.
Ranchers who lease the sweeping hillside pastures from the National Park Service say their cows are competing with the elk for vegetation, which has become scarce after three years of drought.
They say the animals have knocked down fences and often gobble up the rye grasses that cows rely upon, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Sunday.
“There is plenty of room for elk, but not on the pastoral land,” said Stacy Carlsen, the Marin County agricultural commissioner. “Elk and livestock are just not compatible. The ranchers don’t want elk to compete with livestock on their property.”
Carlsen has been urging the Park Service to capture and remove the 76 elk recently counted in the area and build a large fence to keep them out.
Ranchers say the elk threaten their dairies’ existence because at least 30 percent of a cow’s diet must be foraged material or they lose their organic certification.
But there is no easy answer to the contentious issue, which the Park Service is expected to address in a ranch management plan that it began preparing this year and is expected to complete in 2015.
The Park Service is obligated by mission statements to both protect and restore native species and preserve agriculture on the peninsula. The powerful elk, with their elaborate candelabra-style antlers, are also a main attraction for the 2.6 million annual tourists who visit the park.
The majority of comments on the proposed ranch-management plan urge the park to prioritize the protection of native animals such as elk.
“The public doesn’t want these elk relocated, fenced into an exhibit, shot, sterilized or any of the other absurd proposals from ranchers who enjoy subsidized grazing privileges in our national seashore,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “I think on balance the cattle are eating more grass that’s supposed to be going to wildlife than the other way around.”
The tule elk, a native species once thought to be extinct, is often heralded as a successful conservation example.
There were once about 500,000 tule elk in California. The herds were hunted after the Gold Rush in 1849, and their habitat was converted to crops and grazing land for livestock. The elk were thought to be extinct until wealthy landowner Henry Miller found some in his property and protected them.
The state banned hunting them in 1971, and now there are 4,300 tule elk in 22 herds from Mendocino County to southern Kern County, Joe Hobbs, the statewide elk coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Chronicle.