LOS ANGELES — Tule elk are treasured creatures in California, and for years, animal rights groups have butted heads with the Point Reyes National Seashore over its practice of keeping elk fenced away from nearby cattle ranches.
Amid a dry 2020, the groups tried to bring water to the creatures but were rebuffed by the National Park Service. Now the federal agency has released a report indicating that more than one-third of the 445 elk fenced in at Tomales Point died this past winter, bringing the population down to 293.
In response, activists are again demanding the park service remove an 8-foot-high fence that separates the elk from cattle, saying it is cruel and prevents the animals from reaching water outside of the 2,600-acre enclosure.
"I don't know why the park service is so set on privileging private profit over wildlife at this national park," said Fleur Dawes, communications director for In Defense of Animals, a San Rafael animal activist group. She added these are modern agriculture operations, "Hardly your small, 'let's see Betsy getting milked' kind of family farm."
Did lack of water access contribute to the elk's demise? The park service doesn't think so. A spokeswoman, Melanie Gunn, said field observations and six necropsies show the elk succumbed to malnutrition, not dehydration.
She said the nutritional quality of the elk's forage is "likely exacerbated by the drought."
Point Reyes National Seashore was created to be a "wonderful haven where one can rest at peace with the land and sea," as U.S. Rep. Clement Woodnutt Miller wrote in authorizing legislation for the protected wilderness area in 1962.
But over the last year, a wildfire struck the park — which in non-pandemic times is visited annually by roughly 2.5 million tourists — amid a devastating drought, all under the watchful eye of environmental groups and animal activists.
At the same time, the National Park Service is finalizing a plan for managing a wilderness area beloved by residents of the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.
On April 22, the California Coastal Commission will weigh in on a new draft of the park's preferred management plan, which could increase the amount of ranch grazing in the park from 27,000 to 28,100 acres, and reduce the size of one of the elk populations from 139 to 120, through lethal means.