Determining the Future of Point Reyes National Seashore 

Growing elk herds are competing with grazing cattle at the national park, raising questions about how best to manage public lands.

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"If we had done what the environmentalists wanted and removed grazing, the frogs would have been worse off," he said. "Instead, we saw a population surge in an endangered species."

Watt noted that grazing has effectively replaced the activities of the Miwok people, who used to regularly set fire to the shrubbery that grew here to tidy up the land and make it easier to navigate.

"Everywhere you see open grassland in coastal California — that land is grazed," she said. "In the southern part of the [Point Reyes] seashore, where it's designated wilderness, there is no more grazing, and all that prairie has been overgrown with coyote brush."

Miller, at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the positive impacts on the land from cattle are "absolutely exaggerated" and that cattle grazing causes erosion, pollutes water, spreads invasive plants, and damages habitats — problems that are well documented at Point Reyes.

"There are some wildlife species that do well in overgrazed grasslands and benefit from the type of severe grazing that occurs at Point Reyes, but most native wildlife habitat is negatively impacted by cattle grazing and other ranching practices, such as mowing grasslands for forage," Miller said.

Consulting ecologist Josiah Clark, of San Francisco, regularly visits Point Reyes to track and count birds. He thinks the benefits of grazing cattle can outweigh impacts when the animals are managed thoughtfully. He said European annual grasses have overwhelmed much of California's open space and that cattle have a tendency to control this vegetation while regenerating soil. He said that while elk could provide the same services if they were allowed to replace ranches, the ranchers still living on the public lands of West Marin deserve credit for the most basic of services — preserving the land in the first place.

"We are so lucky that Point Reyes didn't get turned into high-end real estate or housing tracts," he said.

But cattle operations, like any industry, also have their impacts. Each spring, some ranchers use tractors to mow their grass, which is collected and stored as silage. Birds nest in the tall stands of vegetation at this time, and the mowers pose a clear threat to these animals. In blunter terms, they run them over and macerate them at unknown, but probably very high, numbers. In 2015, the Petaluma-based conservation science group Point Blue, which focuses on bird ecology, closely studied the impacts of silage mowing on birds at Point Reyes. They saw dramatically fewer ground-nesting birds on fields following mowing, and they even reported seeing a post-mowing surge in the presence of ravens, speculated to be scavenging the animals killed by the mowers.

Just as cattle may improve soil conditions, they can also harm it — especially on dairy ranches where the animals are rounded up daily and herded into tight quarters to be milked. Many hikers who frequent Point Reyes know how milling cattle herds can stamp low-lying gullies into mud holes and make public dirt roads through the park almost impassable during the rainy months. The same sorts of impacts are also encountered by hikers and cyclists who cross the public grazing land of the East Bay Municipal Utility District. Manure produced by these animals poses a disposal issue that isn't always handled cleanly, and tainted runoff can foul water quality. This can produce high levels of coliform bacteria in Tomales Bay, which often triggers health regulations prohibiting sales of oysters by local farms.

Guard dogs, used to ostensibly protect cattle from predators, may even pose a hazard to people. Baty described an encounter he had while hiking in the park six or seven years ago with a pair of large Pyrenean sheepdogs, a white shaggy breed known in France as the patou. He said the dogs approached him, huffing and growling, and obstructed his way forward. They were presumably guarding a nearby ranch property.

"They didn't attack me, but it was shocking to me that in the middle of a national park, with no human supervision, you could have these aggressive guard dogs running loose and trained to protect livestock," he said.

Though lethal controls of pests and predators are forbidden in ranch contracts and in theory never occur, it is easy to imagine such untethered dogs harrying coyotes and bobcats, and killing slower-moving residents like opossums, raccoons, and skunks.

Such an adversarial stance against wildlife and conservation goals in general has been the modus operandi of ranchers throughout the world and history. Ranchers led the eradication of wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions from much of North America, and they have opposed efforts to reestablish the animals. Ranchers threaten spectacled bears in the tropical Andes. In the French Pyrenees, sheep farmers and cheesemakers practically took up arms against the reintroduction of brown bears to the mountains in the late 1990s, and they remain mortal enemies of the animals, which their own forefathers gunned to local extinction. In Oregon, ranchers have protested the reappearance of wolves, which have flowed into the state — and even into California — after they were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

Only now, with grizzlies and wolves long eradicated from West Marin, is it relatively easy — and perhaps accurate — for cattle ranchers to frame their operations as ecologically sustainable. Niman said the very notion of preserving West Marin's wilderness rests on erroneous thinking, for there is no true wilderness left. In the wildest parts of Alaska, protected public spaces still have a unique opportunity to preserve truly natural landscapes, he said.


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