Point Reyes National Seashore, in Northern California, is a biodiversity hotspot. Forty-five percent of North American bird species and 18% of California’s plant species are found in the small national park. Hundreds of species of birds and nearly 1,000 species of native plant varieties color the landscape, in addition to elephant seals, tule elk, black-tailed deer, bishop pines, coastal scrub, and many other species — from the rare to the endangered.
Yet the cattle-polluted waters of Point Reyes rank in the top 10% of U.S. monitoring locations most contaminated by feces indicated by E. coli bacteria, according to a 2017 report based on data from the Water Quality Portal collected from more than 400 state, federal, tribal and local agencies from 2012 to 2017. The seashore was one of the 10 most feces-contaminated locations monitored in California since 2012 (the state’s highest reported E. coli level was on a Point Reyes cattle ranch).
The Park Service’s 2013 Coastal Watershed Assessment for Point Reyes National Seashore documented numerous examples of cattle polluting water resources in the park and identified bacterial and nutrient pollution from cattle operations as a principal threat to water quality. The Park Service allows ranches and dairies to violate state and Clean Water Act water-quality standards, and the dairies spread liquid cattle manure on grasslands throughout the park.
Although the Park Service is supposed to manage these public lands for protection of natural resources, cattle operators continue to cause significant bacterial pollution of the park’s waterways. The high fecal coliform readings came from wetlands and creeks draining ranches in the Kehoe Beach area of Point Reyes National Seashore. Eight locations in the Olema Valley that receive runoff from cattle operations within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area also stood out for high fecal bacteria levels, due to ranch leases on public lands managed by the Park Service.
At Point Reyes National Seashore, about 15 private cattle operators graze beef and dairy cattle on 24 lease units that make up more than 18,000 acres of the park’s 71,000 acres. The National Park Service recently updated the Point Reyes National Seashore management plan, forced by conservation groups to finally address cattle ranching impacts and grazing conflicts with native wildlife such as tule elk.
Unfortunately the Park Service is quadrupling the length of existing cattle grazing leases to 20 years, allowing ranchers to diversify agricultural operations and bring in new livestock animals. The Park Service will be killing tule elk to protect ranchers’ profits and allowing ranching to continue in perpetuity with very little oversight or meaningful measures to protect natural resources. This includes shooting free-roaming tule elk to keep them below an arbitrary population cap and harassing and hazing elk to force them off ranch lease lands.
The Park Service also maintains a fence that traps the northern Tomales elk herd on a peninsula with inadequate water and forage. More than 400 elk have died behind this fence during recent drought years. The fence prevents the Tomales herd from accessing native water resources, and the elk have been thirsting to death while cattle have unfettered access to water and forage.
Meanwhile data from the Park Service’s own assessment determined that cattle grazing for dairies pollutes the Drakes Estero, Limantour, Kehoe and Abbots Lagoon areas with high concentrations of fecal coliform. Other studies show that cattle operations are one of the major contributors of fecal coliform and E. coli to Tomales Bay. Numerous environmental, tribal and other activists continue to fight against the prioritizing of cattle over wildlife at the seashore.
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