Park Service Sells Out Point Reyes National Seashore to the Livestock Industry

Tule Elk at PRNS. Photo Erik Molvar.

Thirteen ranchers won a sweeping victory this week, defeating the interests of three million annual visitors to Point Reyes National Seashore, by securing a plan amendment that extends their commercial livestock operations on Park lands for at least 20 years. The plan amendment – the first epic public lands fail by the nascent Biden administration – sells out native ecosystems, rare wildlife, and the beachgoing public. The plan extends beef and dairy operations well beyond the terms well Congressional intention for the Seashore’s establishment in 1978, which prescribed livestock leases for “a definite term of not more than twenty-five years, or, in lieu thereof, for a term ending at the death of the owner or the death of his or her spouse, whichever is later.”

Let’s call it the Point Reyes National Scandal.

With its decision, the National Park Service perpetuates the following 12 environmental problems, indeed enshrines them in future park management. The Park Service ignores the overwhelming proportion of public comments urging the agency to solve each one by the simple act of ending the leasing of Park Service lands for commercial agriculture. Each one of the following major problems, by itself, presents sufficient cause to compel the Park Service to end commercial ranching on Point Reyes National Seashore for good.

  1. Harassing and killing the rare tule elk. For decades, the Park Service and ranchers leasing National Seashore lands have harassed and killed tule elk, because they view these native wildlife as competing with livestock for forage. Ranchers build cattle fences taller than necessary to keep the native herbivores off public lands, and these pasture fences entangle elk, sometimes maiming or killing them. When the elk manage to get past these migration barriers, ranchers chase them off with ATVs. The Park Service will even go so far as to kill the elk under the plan if they repeatedly try to return to their natural habitats presently leased for cattle ranching. Thus, the new General Management Plan makes harassment and killing of tule elk the official government policy.
  2. Blocking natural migrations and recovery of tule elk populations. The main tule elk population on the Seashore is imprisoned behind an 8-foot-tall fence on a narrow spit of land called Tomales Point, which is known to have soils deficient in key nutrients and inadequate fresh water to sustain the elk. The Tomales Point vegetation, growing on nutrient-deficient soils, is insufficient to sustain the herd when droughts hit. As a consequence, every five years or so, there is a major elk die-off where hundreds of these charismatic animals perish, and all because they are not allowed the freedom to migrate naturally to lands which have the water and forage they need to survive. The new plan extends the life of this fence, instead of doing the ecologically responsible thing and tearing it down. It is unprecedented for a Park Service unit to artificially confine native wildlife and restrict their natural movements for any reason, let alone to perpetuate commercial livestock operations.
  3. Polluting streams and causing a public health menace. Cattle pump out huge quantities of urine and feces each day. Much of it washes straight into the waterways of Point Reyes National Seashore, creating fecal coliform pollution levels that violate the Clean Water Act in streams and estuaries on popular recreational beaches. Kehoe Creek, which drains into one of the most heavily-visited beaches on the National Seashore, is also known to be one of California’s most-polluted waterways based on Clean Water Act standards, and it’s all because of the livestock. Estuaries have occasionally become so polluted by cattle effluent that they are closed due to public health hazards. The new plan amendment includes only token measures to address these problems, and do not guarantee event the basic level of compliance required by federal law.
  4. Destroying native ecosystems. Point Reyes National Seashore is home to some of the last remnants of rare California coastal prairie, but livestock operations have completely destroyed these native ecosystems on grazed pastures. The festering clumps of invasive thistles and poison hemlock are an obvious contagion on the land, readily visible to the casual observer. But most people don’t realize that the grasses growing between them are invasive weeds as well – European annual grasses that have replaced the native perennial bunchgrass and shrubs that belong here. In addition, the plants grown as “silage” on the National Seashore to feed the cattle also are invasive weeds that have escaped cultivation and now are spreading and proliferating into the less-intensively impacted parts of the park. Instead of plant communities of native perennial bunchgrass that support rare and imperiled plants and wildlife like the Sonoma spineflower, Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly, and California red-legged frog, the agriculture industry hasturned tens of thousands of acres of public land into a biological desert.
  5. Spreading zoonotic diseases. The cattle herds on Point Reyes National Seashore are known to be carriers of a bacterium that causes Johne’s disease, a livestock disease that also infects native wildlife and humans. In humans, the bacterium that causes Johne’s disease is known to cause Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and colon cancer in humans. Johne’s causes gastrointestinal problems that can prove fatal in elk. The Park Service has, at times, tested the tule elk for Johne’s by killing the animals and sampling their carcasses, but it has never required the testing and culling of infected domestic cattle. As a result, cattle on Point Reyes serve as a reservoir for disease pathogens, triggering ongoing disease outbreaks and risking human health. After all that we’ve learned lately from COVID-19 about the dangers of animal-borne diseases, you would think the Park Service (and the Biden administration) would know better.
  6. Worsening climate impacts. Cattle are ruminants that belch massive quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, but that’s not their biggest climate impact. Heavy cattle grazing on Point Reyes National Seashore converts native grasslands and shrublands to annual weeds. Perennial grasses have deep roots, and live for many years to develop dense networks of roots that not only store carbon themselves, but also exude carbon compounds into the soil. Woody shrubs are also major assets for carbon storage. Annual weeds, on the other hand, die every year, giving up their carbon to decomposition. In addition, tons of hay need to be trucked in to feed the overabundance of cattle, worsening the carbon footprint of the Seashore. Add in the major atmospheric carbon inputs from all that manure, and you’ve got a carbon bomb going off on the National Seashore, instead of healthy plant communities that pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
  7. Subsidizing avian predators. Livestock operations lead to unnaturally high population densities of ravens. Ravens are a significant nest predator on ground-nesting birds. The endangered snowy plover finds some of its best remaining nesting dune habitat at the National Seashore but efforts to recover this rare bird are set back by unnaturally high concentrations of ravens raiding their nests to take the eggs. It’s not the ravens’ fault, it’s the Park Service’s fault for extending the concentrated cattle production that results in high numbers of hungry ravens.
  8. Blocking public access to public lands. The ranchers who lease Park Service lands for their cattle on act like they own the place. They treat park visitors like trespassers, even though National Seashore lands are supposed to all be open to public use and enjoyment. Sometimes, the ranchers even harass park visitors attempting to recreate on these public lands. In addition, there are over 300 miles of barbed-wire fence and electric fence on Point Reyes National Seashore and the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area, fencing out hikers and wildlife watchers.
  9. Spreading liquified manure on public lands. By continuing to authorize liquified manure spreading on 1,800 acres of National Seashore, the Park Service is managing this special place like an open sewer. Each cow produces 14 gallons of feces and urine each day. The new plan authorizes upwards of 4,825 cattle to graze on the National Seashore. That’s 7 million gallons of urine and feces produced on Point Reyes every year, the equivalent to the sewage output of a city of 45,000 people. The livestock waste has to go somewhere. Some of it is sprinkled over the land, draining into streams and estuaries. At the dairies, it is liquified, stored in lagoons, then pumped into tanker trucks and spread out over the landscape in concentrated form. It’s a disgusting way to treat a National Seashore.
  10. Authorizing row crop cultivation on Park Service lands. The new plan authorizes livestock producers to plow up 167 acres of National Seashore land to plant row crops – called ‘silage’ – to feed their cattle, because cattle authorizations on Point Reyes National Seashore far exceed the available forage. The crops planted for cattle fodder are European mustard and wild radish, two non-native weeds that already escape from silage fields and invade surrounding ecosystems. In addition, silage fields act as an “attractive sink” for wildlife, drawing them in to be killed by combine harvesters. Graphic videos show ravens flocking behind the harvesters to scavenge killed and maimed ground-nesting birds, and show coyotes making off with mangled deer fawns that sought cover in the tall vegetation of the silage fields only to be mowed down at harvest time.
  11. Frustrating the recovery of salmon and steelhead runs. There are several streams on Point Reyes National Seashore known to provide spawning habitat for imperiled migratory populations of coho salmon and steelhead. At the National Seashore, livestock are the single biggest threat to the recovery of these species, contributing to erosion and siltation that chokes in-stream spawning gravels and impairs the survival of salmon and steelhead eggs. Getting rid of the cows would improve the spawning gravels and promote the recovery of streamside vegetation (and therefore woody debris for in-stream fish cover), fostering the recovery of these dwindling populations of migratory fishes.
  12. Extending cattle leases from 5 years to 20 years. What makes this National Seashore plan such a giant gift to the livestock industry, and a giant slap in the face for the vast majority of the public who opposed any cattle on the National Seashore, is that the Park Service is now locking in livestock operations on Park Service lands in 20-year increments. Industrial-scale livestock production doesn’t belong on a National Seashore. These lands were purchased from willing sellers in the 1960s and 1970s, with the understanding that the lease transition period would last no more than 25 years or the life of the owners. Such long leases give the public little opportunity to weigh in on environmental reviews and limit opportunities to change management.

In the final analysis, the Biden Administration’s decision for Point Reyes National Seashore is little more than the Trump plan with a few minor tweaks that cannot mask the dirty dozen environmental problems listed above.  Each problem so severe and outrageous that responsible Park Service leadership would have shut livestock operations down years ago. The new plan still authorizes native tule elk to be hazed – and even killed – to suit the whims of cattle operations. It keeps the ecologically indefensible concentration fence up on Tomales Point, preventing the vast majority of the park’s elk from migrating freely and moving to more suitable habitats when water holes dry up and forage is insufficient. It prolongs the practice of plowing up native grasslands to produce invasive crops to feed the cattle, leading to more butchery of ground-nesting birds and deer fawns every time the fields are harvested with a combine. It continues the practice of liquifying millions of gallons of manure and spreading them on Park Service lands. And most significantly, it exchanges 5-year leases for livestock production for 20-year leases, prolonging the degradation of park lands and resources to the detriment of wildlife and public recreation. In effect, the new plan is worse than the old plan.

It’s as if the Park Service is asking for a lawsuit.


Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group working to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.



  1. mary s Avatar
    mary s

    WOW, This is so unbelievable and had expected more from the Biden administration.

    If we all stop eating animals and consuming dairy, perhaps we could remove the demand.

    IPCC notes cutting carbon dioxide is not enough to solve the climate crisis – the world must act swiftly on another powerful greenhouse gas, methane, to halt the rise in global temperatures, and this methane comes from cows. To go forward on this = Ecocide –
    “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”

  2. Jane Marsh Avatar
    Jane Marsh

    I think this is one of the best articles you have ever written, Mr. Molvar, and that’s saying a lot because you have written many great ones. Your clear description of the (many) bad elements of this decision with the impacts listed clearly makes it easy to grasp the enormity of this decision.

    What I find particularly chilling is that there seemed to be a fair amount of media covering this issue; there were several protests on site; and conservation groups spoke out loud and clear. But the NPS just did what it was going to do all along: cater to private interests aka the ranchers.

    “From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans…” takes on a new meaning, doesn’t it?

    I feel we need to ramp up the fight to the govt in a different way. I feel with need much much more direct action by citizens on all conservation issues. We need to spread awareness about livestock invading our public lands and the massive negative environmental and climate impacts that come with this.

    And, I hope WWP sues the pants off whomever/whatever is responsible for this decision.

  3. cynthia brown Avatar

    DoNot let these thirteen ranchers and their families take
    away the Tule Elk this is BAD PLRASE STOP IT This Public

  4. Veda Stram Avatar

    And the dairy industry again defeats wild animals, once-thriving ecosystems and overwhelming public opinion because… people refuse to stop consuming dairy products. Anyone outraged by this who is not vegan is culpable and responsible for these kinds of ‘decisions.’

  5. Laurie Avatar

    Biden and Haaland are proving themselves to be ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE. Those NPS Advisory Board members who voted for this corruption should be SUED and SHAMED. The Interior Dept selects the corrupt members.
    We need to take aggressive action to stop this outrageous abuse.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      Add to that the Cal. Representative Huffman(?) AND Senator Feinstein who not only allowed this but promoted this very same thing! The public’s opinion on this disaster has been completely ignored. Yes, time for a lawsuit – time for many of them!

  6. Carole McMillan Avatar
    Carole McMillan

    I am beyond appalled at the NPS as well as the Biden administration who are allowing this travesty to continue. SHAME. SHAME. SHAME. Biden for telling US citizens that you care about the environment!!! Lies! Lies! This article spells out the disastrous consequences of cattle on public lands as well as anywhere in large numbers. You allow DISGUSTING cattleranchers on PUBLIC LANDS that were designated for WILD horses & mustang’s while you LIE to the people about how the lands can’t sustain our wild mustang’s & Burros & now you go so far as to continue this DISGUSTING policy of wiping g out our beautiful Point Reyes National Seashore for tons of urine & cattle fecal waste that is disastrous for the environmental as well as the Native animals as well as disastrous for humans!!!! SHAME on the NPS….DISGUSTED.

  7. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    The Park Service is going to have to be held to taking care of the Tule Elk, so that they can have access to water too, not just a trickling mud puddle. Perhaps the courts could underscore it.

  8. Robert Raven Avatar

    Excellent article on the dozen reasons why the NPS should have decided to end the ranch and dairy leases at PRNS.
    I’d add to #11 the polluting of the Marine Sanctuary.
    And to #12 that the leases are legacies of Euro settlers who seized Pt. Reyes from the native Coast Miwok.
    And add somewhere the trash dumps of rusting cars and tires that somehow were allowed on a National Seashore.

  9. Kay Lopez Avatar
    Kay Lopez

    Wild horses are also being pushed off their land granted to them by Congress in the wild horse and Burro Act of 1971. Welfare cattle and sheep ranchers are stealing it from the horses. Massive round ups and slaughters are occurring clear across the west.Cruel helicopter round ups are causing mass hysteria among our beautiful symbols of freedom. Bottom line we are paying taxes on land stolen from our horses. BOYCOTT BEEF. BOYCOTT SHEEP.Our Secretary of Interior Deborah Haaland is doing nothing to stop this.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      This administration doesnt even mention our Wild Horses – seems to me I remember Biden actually doing something about them when he was VP. And this Sec. of DOI? I thought there would be big changes in attitude towards our Wild Horses and other wildlife & habitat – but nothing!

  10. Jim Popper Avatar
    Jim Popper

    We Need a lawsuit!! As the very same thing is occurring in Yellowstone National Park w/ the genetically pure Bison. Culled/blocked/harrassed for the cattle industry.
    Seek out Buffalo Field Campaign to learn of that travesty.

  11. Sunny Lemming Avatar
    Sunny Lemming

    It is past time to hold these commercial meat producers and colluding Congressional participants accountable for the devastation to public lands that we?, the people, own. Our Congressional representatives are only listening to special interest groups and not the American people. Check who voted to extend this agreement, write them and tell them people are angry and their retention is at risk.

  12. Tina Pounds Avatar
    Tina Pounds

    I’m ready to join in any lawsuit as a public citizen whose rights to public lands. I can help with clerical duties, etc. please let me know. There has to be something we can do to stop this. A TRO until and environmental and natural habitat study?

  13. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Absolutely . . .! The President should know about Pt. Reyes. We must not assume he has even heard about it.
    A big problem here is that the local member of the House of Representatives (Congress) here is Jared Huffman, a Democrat. As such he likely gets a pass from other Democrats and the President who assume the Pt. Reyes plan must be OK because Huffman votes with other Democrats on other environmental issues. They don’t realize Huffman is a complete sellout to the big dairies running the seashore.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      And as I said above – Diane Feinstein is right there on the side of the ranchers!

  14. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It’s bad enough that the farmers and ranchers have overstayed their lease – but I must repeat, the worst thing of all is the being allowed to *expand* their activities in a drought-plagued area to operating B&Bs and row crops, which would be very water intensive? It is a slap in the face, on top of it. “Allowed on a case-by-case basis” or not. 🙁

    If the government truly has concerns about climate change and it isn’t just a political tool for them, then this type of insult to injury cannot continue.

  15. Rich Avatar

    I support the good work done by WWP, Earthjustice, Center for Biological Diversity and others and will continue to do that. In the case of the latest ludicrous decisions by the Park Service regarding commercial farming and expanding private ventures in the PRNS, it would seem this is an obvious and overwhelming injustice with adverse impacts on the environment, native wildlife, plants and human health on several levels. There should be a well advertised public notice and a powerful, coordinated, focused legal campaign to bring some sanity to the situation. I am certainly willing to increase my contributions. I know nothing is ever easy especially the crap shoot nature of our legal system. However this seems like a time to pull out all the stops and make the Park Service do the right thing. What will it take to make that happen?


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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