Tule elk, water quality, and Indigenous rights are at risk at Point Reyes National Seashore, where animal agriculture is being prioritized despite objections.
The Coast Miwok were the “first humans to appreciate the beauty and bounty of Marin County,” according to their Coast Miwok of Marin website. Archaeological evidence shows they have inhabited this land for at least 5,000 years, but according to their own oral histories, they have been here for at least 10,000 years. Their creation stories describe how their ancestors emerged from the land itself. Either way, the Coast Miwok have been stewards of the land for thousands of years. In a reciprocal relationship, they nurtured nature and in return, nature provided bountiful harvests and animals that aided their survival.
In 1579, Sir Francis Drake and his crew became the first outsiders to make extended contact with the Coast Miwok when the Englishman’s ship needed repairs taking just over a month to complete. The experience was a pleasant one, with one crewmember writing that “[The Coast Miwok] are a people of a tractable, free, and loving nature, without guile or treachery.” Unfortunately, the next encounter was not so friendly, as 200 years later, European colonizers enslaved the Coast Miwok in the name of Spanish Catholicism. The missionaries forced the Indigenous people to tend to their land and cattle and eat the food provided by the mission, resulting in weakened immune systems, the rapid spread of disease, and many deaths.
When the missions were secularized 50 years later, the Coast Miwok were promised some land, but this promise was never honored. When California became a state, the first governor, Peter Burnett, proclaimed: “We have suddenly spread ourselves over the country in every direction and appropriated whatever portion of it we pleased to ourselves, without [Coast Miwok] consent and without compensation. A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct.” 30 years later, only 60 Coast Miwok lived in Marin County, according to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Despite the colonization and discrimination these Indigenous people have faced, the Coast Miwok remain in Marin County, California and are exercising their right to self-determination governance as a federally recognized tribe. The Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin, a council of tribal leaders, leads the Miwok people in their sacred responsibilities to uphold and renew the traditional practices of their ancestors and to remain stewards of the land they have taken care of for thousands of years.
Tule elk are endemic to California, meaning they can only be found there. For years, herds of these elk roamed Marin County, but by the mid-1800s, white colonizers had killed most of the population via hunting and displacement by animal agriculture. A small herd was spared, saving this species from extinction and allowing the reintroduction of tule elk to the wild many years later.
In the mid 20th century, the National Parks Service and environmentalists pushed to turn Point Reyes into a national seashore to prevent more urban sprawl. Despite protests from local ranchers, President John F. Kennedy signed the Point Reyes Act into law, turning Point Reyes into a national seashore in 1962. Animal agriculture in this area was not meant to be maintained, with the intention of gradually phasing it out of Point Reyes National Seashore by letting leases expire. Despite this goal, legislation was passed a few years later permitting ranchers to extend their leases, allowing the continuation of animal agriculture.
Meanwhile, a herd of 10 tule elk was reintroduced to Point Reyes National Seashore, thanks to the remnant herd preserved about 100 years prior. The eight females and two males were moved from a wildlife refuge to a fenced enclosure in Tomales Point. There was a possibility of removing this fence in order to establish free-ranging tule elk populations. However, this action would likely interfere with animal agriculture operations and instead, some tule elk were relocated to the Limatour area to start a free-ranging population in the southern part of the park, according to the 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment published by the National Park Service.
Conflict between animal agriculture and environmental interests is a common theme at Point Reyes National Seashore. In 2012, oyster farming was discontinued due to the harm it was causing to marine ecosystems. A year later, the National Park Service published their Coastal Watershed Assessment for the national seashore. The report detailed several examples of animal agriculture polluting Point Reyes’ waters with feces, making it the largest threat to water quality within the park. The National Park Service allows dairy and cattle operations to spread liquid manure and urine throughout the national seashore, which washes off into nearby streams, creeks, lagoons, and eventually the ocean, nutrient, fecal, and bacterial pollution. These bacteria include E. coli and other fecal coliforms, which indicate feces in the water and are a threat to human and environmental health. Visitors are in direct contact with these waters at Point Reyes at Drakes Estero, Limantour, Kehoe, and Abbotts Lagoons, so water contamination is supposed to be more strictly monitored. However, as shown here and as I’ll explain further on, waste management practices have not been implemented effectively and water pollution remains a problem at Point Reyes.
At the same time, tule elk were once again in danger. Due to a drought from 2012 to 2014, nearly half of the tule elk in the herd being held captive in the Tomales Point Elk Reserve died, while the two free-roaming herds in the park saw an increase in population by nearly a third. The lack of rain caused perennial streams and stock ponds to dry up, so tule elk stuck in the enclosed area could not roam to find more water and subsequently died of dehydration. The reason tule elk are forced to stay in a fenced-off area in the first place is to keep them away from nearby cattle and dairy farms, creating another divide between environmental and ranching interests at Point Reyes. According to Jeff Miller at the Center for Biological Diversity, "The reintroduction of elk to the Point Reyes peninsula is a success story for conservation of native species, but the elk are in jeopardy of eviction to benefit a few lease holders. The park service already prioritizes commercial cattle grazing in Point Reyes.'' Many environmental groups shared this sentiment continued advocating for the end of ranching at Point Reyes Seashore, but the National Parks service claimed that the tule elk had an “adequate water source” and that the deaths of 254 tule elk were due to natural processes.
The National Park Service began the process of creating an indigenous archaeological district at Point Reyes in 2008 but withdrew the application “without explanation” in 2015 to the dismay of the Coast Miwok and indigenous advocates. The Park Service then submitted an application to get the animal agriculture facilities placed on the National Historic Register as a Historic Ranching District, which was quickly approved. “Why is a 100-year-plus dairy-ranching history more valuable than a Coast Miwok history of 10,000 years? You have a decision to either protect Coast Miwok archeological sites, or to add to the erasure of the Coast Miwok archeological record,” said Theresa Harlan, an adopted Coast Miwok author and advocate for Indigenous Access to Homelands on Public Lands. Many other indigenous voices spoke out, especially when indigeous archaeological sites were threatened a few years later, which will be discussed later in this article.
In 2016, the firm Advocates for the West sued the National Parks Service on behalf of the Western Watersheds project, the Resource Renewal Institute, and the Center for Biological Diversity. The National Parks Service had not updated its General Management Plan since 1980 and violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to perform an environmental impact assessment—specifically, an environmental impact statement that would include public engagement and alternative options to the Park Service’s proposed plan for park management. Advocates for the West won the case, and the National Park Service began their environmental impact statement.
As the Parks Service was analyzing the environmental effects of animal agriculture on the park, a report was released revealing that Point Reyes National Seashore was in the top 10 percent of waters contaminated by feces indicated by E. coli bacteria levels in the United States. It also showed that the national seashore was one of the 10 most feces- contaminated waters in the state since 2012, with a cattle ranch in Point Reyes having the highest E. coli levels in California. Once again, runoff from dairy and cattle operations was identified as the primary contributor to high fecal coliform levels in wetlands and streams that feed into other bodies of water in the seashore, including Tomales Bay and even nearby Golden Gate Recreation Area. The press release from the Center for Biological Diversity on this report came just four years after the National Park Service’s Coastal Watershed Assessment revealed how Point Reyes animal agriculture threatened the water quality.
A couple of years later, the National Parks Service released their Environmental Impact Statement for the management of Point Reyes National Seashore. In it, they offered six alternatives, or plans for what would happen to the park, mainly in terms of tule elk and animal agriculture. The Park Service’s preferred option is Alternative B, in which free-roaming tule elk would be killed to control their population growth, ranching leases would be extended to 20 years, and ranching within the park would be “diversified.” Alternative F, on the other hand, would yield the most environmental benefits by ending animal agriculture in the national seashore and allowing tule elk to roam unhindered. The release of this environmental impact review sparked lively debate among environmentalists, ranchers, local residents, and more.
The release of the Environmental Impact Statement and the National Park Service’s preferred alternative caused quite a reaction. In January, 100 diverse conservation groups, environmental justice organizations, and local businesses signed a letter asking the California Coastal Commission to reject the National Park Service’s plan when it was brought before them for approval. However, the Commission approved the plan with Alternative B in a five to four vote, with the conditions that the Park Service would develop a strategy for improving water quality at Point Reyes and would create a five-year progress report for the Commission.
Shortly after the vote, the Coast Miwok Tribe wrote a letter to Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first U.S. Indigenous cabinet secretary, asking her to reject the National Parks plan on the grounds that it prioritizes animal agriculture over Indigenous people’s rights and the environment. The tribe had four major reasons for their disapproval.
First, the new management plan prioritized the relatively short history of animal agriculture at Point Reyes over the thousands of years of history of the Coast Miwok people. “That’s a slap in the face to our people to call it historic dairy ranching,” said Jason Deschler, a member of the Coast Miwok Tribal Council that wrote the letter. “Our creation stories go back to a lot of the areas of the land. The land is what makes us who we are,” he later added.
Their second issue was that the extended leases and land available to dairy and cattle operations allowed the “continued desecration of native sites by 5,500 cows and farming equipment,” as described in their letter. As explained above, the National Park Service withdrew the proposal for an indigenous archaeological district, instead filing to get the animal agriculture facilities listed on the National Register of Historic Places. About a quarter of the former villages, shell mounds, hunting locations, camps, and other archaeological sites are located in areas with active dairy and cattle operations. While the Park Service has made some efforts to mitigate damage by shifting ranch boundaries or installing barriers around these sites, there has been documented harm from animal agriculture and development, so the Coast Miwok Tribe is asking Haaland to “[r]einstate the National Historic Register proposal for an Indigenous Archaeological District'' to protect discovered and yet-to-be-discovered archaeological sites at Point Reyes National Seashore.
Their last two objections centered around the environmental effects of the new management plan. They address in their letter that the plan “[a]llows policies to accommodate ranchers that harm native wildlife, water, and habitat[, and i]ncludes the systematic killing of indigenous tule elk.”
The harm that animal agriculture at Point Reyes National Seashore has caused is well-documented, especially problems with water pollution. Additionally, tule elk are sacred to the Coast Miwok, so killing the animals in the name of population control would be an insult to their culture, as well as being a generally inhumane solution. Jason Deschler summarized the Coast Miwok tribe’s thoughts on the Park Service’s new plan in this press release, saying “Since time immemorial Coast Miwok people have occupied, tended, stewarded and defended the land of Point Reyes. The Park Service proposal to shoot indigenous tule elk and promote ranching that harms wildlife, water and habitat is a travesty and contrary to the traditions of our ancestors.”
Meanwhile, the Marin County Environmental Health Services Community Development Agency revealed that high bacterial levels had been found in Point Reyes’ waters as a result of cattle, with Drakes Estero, Kehoe Beach, and Abbotts Lagoon being particularly polluted. The National Park Service, however, did not put up warnings about water pollution at these popular recreational sites and repeatedly claimed they implemented waste management practices effective in keeping the pollution from dairy and cattle operations out of Point Reyes National Seashore’s waters. This report was the third major report in less than 10 years revealing water contamination levels were far higher than what is considered safe according to water quality criteria, calling into question the effectiveness of these so-called solutions to pollution caused by animal agriculture.
“I am troubled that measures to try to stop this chronic cattle water pollution in these park units are not working,” said Laura Cunningham, California Director at Western Watersheds Project. “The mere band-aids currently in place to try to stop the cow manure entering these park waters and coastal habitats for the sake of imperiled species appear to be entirely ineffective.” These imperiled species include the Central Coast steelhead trout, coho salmon, and California red-legged frog, all of which are considered federally threatened or endangered, and, habitats such as eelgrass beds, which are necessary for the survival of many fish, invertebrates, and other sea life, could decline more rapidly. This is in part due to the possibility of ocean dead zones. When excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from artificial fertilizers and cow manure and urine wash into the ocean, they cause excessive algae growth, called algal blooms, which kill nearby marine ecosystems by depleting the oxygen in the water. Nutrient pollution levels at Point Reyes were the same after agricultural waste management practices were supposedly enacted as they were before. “Reductions in the localized abundance of cattle waste—and the cattle producing it—will be necessary as an urgent measure to adequately protect water quality at Point Reyes National Seashore,” said Cunningham. Both public health and the environment are threatened by the water pollution created by animal agriculture at Point Reyes National Seashore.
Just as water pollution issues haven’t gone away at Point Reyes, neither have tule elk’s inability to access water, especially as droughts worsen with climate change. In 2020, 152 tule elk in the fenced Tomales Point area died due to dehydration and starvation for the same reason half of the herd died from 2012 to 2014: the eight foot tall fence at Tomales Point prevented the elk from being able to travel to other water and food sources when drought dried up the springs, creeks, and vegetation in their area. The National Park Service adamantly denied that the tule elk did not have adequate food and water, but necropsies of tule elk revealed that many of the 152 elk died of starvation, dehydration, or a combination of both. Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service on behalf of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and three regular park visitors and California residents. They argue that the tule elk are dying slow, prolonged, and preventable deaths as a result of negligence by the National Park Service. The case has not yet been settled.
Another drought struck in the spring and summer 2021, resulting in the same drying up of water sources and subsequent dehydration. This time, citizens took matters into their own hands, placing large troughs of water inside elk enclosures at least three times. Each time, the National Park Service removed them. Another time, citizens hiked six miles carrying gallons of water to refill a depleted water hole at Tomales Point. Perhaps because of the actions of volunteers and the bad publicity the National Park Service was receiving, the Park Service placed three troughs of water at the south end of Tomales Point that were to stay there until next winter when the rains returned. Though they claim they are “committed to maintaining three healthy herds of tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore” on their website, their refusal to remove the fence at Tomales Point and denial of dehydration and starvation makes many doubt if their true interests lie with the protection of animals and nature.
Thousands of public comments were made against the new management plan, but in September 2021, a Record of Decision was signed, finalizing the plan with few changes to the National Park Service’s preferred Alternative B. The plan expanded zoning for animal agriculture in Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Leases were extended from five years to 20 years, with the possibility of ranching continuing in perpetuity and permission to expand agricultural operations with row crop production and mobile slaughterhouses among other things. It also enabled Park Service rangers to cull tule elk herds and harass tule elk away from dairy and cattle facilities to appease ranchers. Animal agriculture stakeholders saw the decision as a win, with Kaitlyn Glover, the executive director of the Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Natural Resources saying "This, along with changes that allow for more flexibility in diversification, will allow our producers to better plan for the future of their operations"
Many people did not share her excitement. Environmental groups, the Hispanic Access Foundation, the Coast Miwok, and others were dismayed that Secretary Deb Haaland did not delay the final decision and that the decision to allow the continuation of animal agriculture was made at all. The Coast Miwok were particularly angry that the short “history” of dairy and cattle operations at Point Reyes was prioritized over the history of the Coast Miwok that goes back thousands of years—just another example of indigenous erasure at the park. Activist Theresa Haalan, who was vocal about the National Park Service’s inaction to create an indigenous archaeological district, criticized the decision, saying "It completely ignores the role of the National Park Service, which is to protect and restore natural lands, to protect and restore [those] natural resources. So we are in an imbalance that needs to be fixed.” She also shared that she planned to "continue to advocate for the restoration and the renewal of Point Reyes National Seashore, with an emphasis on Indigenous ecological practices." Sharing similar sentiments, nonprofits such as ForElk and Restore Point Reyes National Seashore are advocating for the National Park Service to prioritize the culture, engagement, and knowledge of the Coast Miwok in the management of Point Reyes, to end animal agriculture at the national seashore, and to allow tule elk populations to live freely.
In January of 2022, the Resource Renewal Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, and Western Watersheds project once again took legal action against the National Parks Service via Advocates for the West. The lawsuit asserts that the National Park Services is in violation of the Point Reyes Act by rejecting Alternative F, which would have eliminated animal agriculture and yielded maximum environmental results, and other alternatives that would reduce animal agriculture and yield better environmental results than the selected Alternative B. The three organizations further explain that by expanding dairy and cattle operations, the environmental issues that have been so prevalent at Point Reyes over the past two decades will only worsen.
“This decision will cause drastic harm to native wildlife at Point Reyes National Seashore," Center for Biological Diversity Senior Conservation Advocate Jeff Miller said in a statement. "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. We’ll do everything in our power to stop the Park Service from implementing this disaster of a plan and to prevent the slaughter of our beloved tule elk.” It remains to be decided if environmental interests will triumph in their second case at Point Reyes.
There is hope, however. In April of 2022, the California Coastal Commission met again to hear the National Park Service’s management plan and decide if the water pollution and climate change mitigation plans that they created over the past year were satisfactory. The Commission rejected it in a unanimous vote. The fate of Point Reyes National Seashore is yet to be determined. With multiple lawsuits against the National Park Service currently in action and with the continued pressure of activists and the general public, there is still a chance to end animal agriculture at this national seashore for the tule elk, Miwok people, and the entire ecosystem at stake.
Julia Collum is an FFAC advocacy intern studying biology, environmental/sustainability sciences, and chemistry at the George Washington University in Washington DC.