Dancing on the Dark Side: Range Magazine, Winter 2017

It is dusk at Point Reyes National

Seashore, the end of a fog-swept, chilly

afternoon. Most of the tourists have left

for the day out on the lighthouse road, which

winds through grassy hills and fingerlike sand

dunes past the alphabet ranches: A, B, C, D.

Dairy cattle lounge on hillsides; some are lining

up at pasture gates waiting to be milked.

As the light fades, the bachelor elk appear,

bugling away and moving from their sketchily

appropriated home on the D Ranch toward

the C Ranch fence. Half a dozen tourist vehicles

park in the middle of the road to admire

them and take pictures on their phones in the

fading light.

The bulls gaze longingly at the Historic C

Ranch organic pasture, only a dozen yards

away across a poorly maintained two-lane

strip of asphalt and a three-wire fence. Neither

will pose a problem.

Within a few hours, somewhere between

60 and 100 head will trot across the road,

jump this fence, and make themselves at

home on the newly rejuvenated grasses of the

Spaletta family’s organic dairy. They will eat

whatever $390-a-ton organic hay they can

steal, although the Spalettas have ceased feeding

hay on the ground to their milk cows and

now confine the hay to racks too narrow for

the antlered bulls, at least, to stick their heads

into. It saves money, but it’s not the best thing

for the milk cows, which would be better

served to scatter across their pasture for their

post-milking meal.

One hundred adult elk can consume a

ton of forage and drink 1,600 gallons

of water a day. These elk will stay

and feed all night, wandering off in the morning

to ruminate back on the D Ranch, which

according to wildlife biologist Dave Press

“isn’t in cattle grazing at the moment.” What

he doesn’t say, in his deflective way, is that the

Seashore cancelled the D Ranch’s long-standing

lease when the family’s matriarch was

killed in a car accident, effectively throwing

her kids off the place not long after the funeral.

Soon after that, radio-collared elk mysteriously

appeared on the D Ranch from the

Limantour Wilderness, on the other side of

Drake’s Estero.

Press explains that after they released 28

radio-collared elk into the wilderness area,

“On day two there were two females missing.

We knew they were alive, we just couldn’t

locate them. Three weeks later they turned up

at Drake’s Beach [bordering the D Ranch].

We don’t know whether they went around or

whether they swam the Estero, but there they

were. Then the rut rolls around, and suddenly

they were back over at Limantour. They came

back a few months later, and one of them

calved there at Drake’s Beach. They did this

little back and forth for a few years and then

in 2001 they came back over to Drake’s with a

male and another female, and they have

grown from there. We have been watching

that herd very, very closely since then and

they show no signs of moving back over to

Limantour.” And why would they? All that

swimming, when there’s organic hay right

across the road.

Ranchers who saw scarred and muddy elk

Dancing on the Dark Side

Park Service two-step at Point Reyes National Seashore.

By Carolyn Dufurrena

WINTER 2017/2018 • RANGE MAGAZINE • 81

wandering lost on the D Ranch the morning

after unmarked trucks and trailers showed up

after dark are more than skeptical of this fairy

tale. But it doesn’t matter now. The elk are

there, and despite the Point Reyes Seashore’s

own elk management plan, which says that

the park will remove those animals which

escape from the wilderness area onto ranchers’

pastures, the park staff are confining their

management to “watching that herd, very,

very closely.”

Occasionally a ranger will show up on the

Spaletta farm and drive around wildly, chasing

the elk back through the remains of the

three-wire fence and across the road in a ludicrous

burst of activity, where they will stay till

the ranger goes back to park headquarters.

Press says the park staff has been doing a fair

amount of that. “We call it ‘hazing’…when

we see that there’s a herd of 60 to 80 elk that

are consistently occupying one of those key

pastures, day in and day out, day in and day

out, we go in there and just kind of ‘walk

them out.’” He makes a “shooing” movement

with his hands. “We just walk them off the


Only park staff are allowed to “haze” the

elk off the Spaletta farm, not the Spalettas,

who certainly would be capable of such a

sophisticated strategy.

The Alphabet Ranches, although invisible

now on Point Reyes National Seashore maps,

were one of the main reasons the park came

into being. The small ranches have been

around since the 1860s. The first white rancher,

a San Franciscan named Randall, had

rounded up thousands of feral cattle left over

on Point Reyes from the Spanish mission

NPS Tule elk lower Pierce

Point ranch stockpond.

82 • RANGE MAGAZINE • WINTER 2017/2018

period, and added a passel of goats, dairy cattle

and sheep, planning to make a fortune in

the Gold-Rush era city. The too-rapid expansion

of Randall’s empire resulted in his losing

the rancho and being shot in the back by one

of his creditors. Predictably perhaps, his

lawyers, Shafter, Shafter, Park & Heydenfeldt,

ended up with the property.

The Shafters divided the peninsula into

30-some small ranches that could be leased

by individual operators. The naming of these

places was more than their imaginations

could handle, apparently, so the ranches were

named A through Z, plus a few at the south

end where the Shafters remained. They sold

the north end, Tomales Point, to Solomon

Pierce, who built a successful

dairy operation there.

By the time of the Great

Depression, diverse factors

including the proliferation of

invasive weeds, the advent of

refrigeration, the aftereffects

of the 1906 earthquake, and

the expansion of dairies

nearer San Francisco combined

to make Point Reyes a

nonprofit enterprise. Many

of the ranches were sold to

the families who leased

them, and their descendants

are on those places today.

Then, in 1937, the Golden

Gate Bridge opened and San

Francisco poured out to

West Marin, looking for


The first conservationists

on Point Reyes were the

ranchers themselves who

donated chunks of ranch

land for parks and public

spaces. By 1959, California

Congressman Clem Miller had introduced

unsuccessful legislation to create a national

seashore. Local county officials as well as

seashore ranchers were opposed, concerned

about losing local control and federal condemnation

of active grazing land. Perhaps

they were right to worry. Miller said at the

time: “It is necessary that we begin to take

some steps…to push this matter if the local

people are unable or unwilling to do it. At the

same time, I want to retain the concept of

local autonomy, particularly West Marin local

autonomy. We want to give the impression

that everything is emanating from there. I am

afraid, however, that McCarthy [the attorney

for the ranchers] sees through this.”

In 1961 a revised bill included the creation

of a “pastoral zone,” allowing dairy and

beef ranching operations to continue within

the park. It also provided for a land exchange

structure that would compensate folks if they

decided to leave the park, allowing them to

continue their operations elsewhere. It

included $14 million to purchase properties

from the ranchers and became law in 1962.

Congress upped the ante for land purchases

in 1970 to $57 million, and by 1975 the

Seashore had purchased all the rest of the

ranches, although the families remained as

leaseholders on the

working landscape. At

the same time, the

National Park Service

was struggling to

understand its mission

at Point Reyes. Hunting

was permitted,

ranching was encouraged,

recreation was

welcome. There was even an ill-fated development

scheme. There was a leadership vacuum.

And nature—and politics—abhor a


During this period, environmental organizations

thriving in the political climate of

1970s California introduced the idea of planting

tule elk on Point Reyes. According to

Ethan Lane’s excellent 2014 report on the history

of Point Reyes: “Impossible as it sounds,

on-going management discussions simultaneously

entertained both the need to control

overpopulated deer and the desire to introduce…

elk…into the already crowded and

conflicted recreation area/seashore/historical


The Seashore was in the throes of creating

a Natural Resources Management Plan and

Environmental Assessment, as well as a General

Management Plan (GMP), which they

did not finish until 1980. In the interim, political

pressure from environmental groups

resulted in 25,000 acres of Point

Reyes National Seashore being designated

wilderness, before the public

comment period required by NEPA

for the GMP ever rolled around. The

wilderness designation included all

of Tomales Point and the Pierce

Point Ranch.

Enter the tule elk, which a 1974

Memorandum of Understanding

(MOU) between Ray Arnett, director

of California Fish & Game and park

superintendent John Sansing documents

as being planned for transplant

to Tomales Point, which was

part of the pastoral zone, and at the

time being ranched by Merv

McDonald, whose family

had been at Point Reyes

since the 1880s and at

Pierce Point since 1966.

“When the fence is completed,”

the memo reads,

“we plan to provide Tule

elk from Tupman and

other available sources.”

With the

wilderness designation in

place, the Seashore made

McDonald’s life hell,

restricting use of motor

vehicles, terminating

electrical service, and

denying essential fence

repair. He ultimately

watched, as his calving

mother cows were

shipped to market, the release of 10 head of

tule elk into an enclosure on the ranch,

including a cow they named Margaret, who

arrived with and subsequently died of Johne’s

(YO-naze) disease, an intestinal bacteria that

manifests as a wasting disease. Quite a few

more would die in subsequent years, after

McDonald and his family were evicted in


The three-mile-long elk fence was in

place, and the 2,600-acre Tomales Point

reserve became home to what would become

over 540 head of elk, a population which

grew exponentially far past the carrying

capacity of 140 animals, predicted by Pete

Gogan of UC Berkeley. A 1992 Environmental

Assessment attempted to deal with the

burgeoning elk population. It included several

alternatives, including public hunting, relocation

to other areas within the park, and

“Relocate excess elk to areas outside the

Seashore,” which referenced the 1974 MOU

with Cal Fish & Game, noting that “this

MOU has expired.” The EA was withdrawn

before the approval process by the NPS. Still

the Seashore used this draft document, with

total disregard for the NEPA process, in its

1998 Elk Management Plan.

By 1998, elk hunting had disappeared as a

management alternative and the new EA was

published with a Finding of No Significant

Impact (FONSI), in spite of the acknowledged

impacts to ranching referred to in

other parts of the study. Thus the park proceeded

to “Manage Elk Using Relocation and

Scientific Techniques.” These included the use

of the contraceptive PZP, researching elk ecology,

and establishing an 18,000-acre elk

reserve on the Philip Burton Wilderness in

the Limantour area, which borders the Home

Ranch and is also well within the pastoral

zone. “There was a vision,” Dave Press says,

“to relieve the population pressure here (at

Tomales Point), but there was also a vision to

have free-ranging elk on the seashore like they

occurred historically. It’s very out of the ordinary

to have fenced in wildlife of any kind in

a national park service unit.”

Six months later in 1999, the D Ranch

family, squarely in the middle of the pastoral

zone and across the broad, watery expanse of

Drake’s Estero from the Wilderness, was

evicted. No explanation was given. There was

another vision, documented in the 2006 Park

Services Management Policy to “phase out

the commercial grazing of livestock whenever


Point Reyes is not the only place where

this dark dance is happening. At the Channel

Islands National Park during the same time

period, the NPS looked hard for species that

they could point to, to regulate the local

ranchers of the Vail and Vickers Company, off

the place they’d owned for more than a century.

They could not provide facts or proof to

support any conclusion that cattle were damaging

species that could be protected by the

ESA; nonetheless, according to former park

superintendent Tim Setnicka, “the park used

the standard management model it uses to

deal with such situations; we ground [the

family ranch] down by calling in other agencies

to help us and in the end outspent them

with almost limitless federal money.”

NPS leaked information “out the back

door” to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, so

that its sister agency could raise the unwarranted

red flag with the Western snowy

plover, restricting cattle access to pastures

where the plover might be threatened at some

point in the future. Using the same tactic, the

regional water quality board was called in to

sue the park—not the Vails—for water quality

damage by the cattle. Later environmental

groups used the same tactic: getting back

door information from the park to sue the

park. Eventually the unlimited funding of the

federal government won out, and the Vails

were forced off the

island. For Setnicka, the

whole process not only

fomented bitterness

within the park itself, but

destroyed the public’s


“The National Park Service,”

said Tim Setnicka,

“has no soul.” Instead, he

argued, it’s comprised of

people maneuvering

through a bureaucracy

that has become increasingly

untrustworthy. It

sounds more and more like a faceless, headless

monster that will stop at nothing to get

what it wants. “The culture of the National

Park Service has changed, and I learned that

during a very contentious planning process”

at the Channel Islands National Park. “I

despise the lack of honesty that the park service

used in that process,” he said of the tactics

used to bring about the premature end of

ranching on Santa Rosa Island. Setnicka was

forced out as park superintendent after he

protested the handling of the landowners.

The last landowner on Santa Cruz Island,

an octogenarian attorney named Francis

Guerini, had agreed to sell to the park, but

had never received a decent offer. Instead, the

park service sent Blackhawk helicopters and

20 armed men to a hunting camp on his land

on a drizzly, cold January

morning. A 15-year-old girl was there on a

bow-hunting trip with her father. They

ambushed her in her bedroom at 5 a.m.—

equipped with semiautomatic pistols, body

armor, black ski masks, goggles and combat

boots. The girl was made to lie face down on

the muddy floor to be handcuffed, and

though the officers later contended that she

was restrained for no more than 30 minutes,

the young woman claims she was in shackles

for nearly two hours. “And they never even

identified themselves,” she says. No charged

were filed; no evidence of wrongdoing was


Is this dark story relevant at Point Reyes?

Don Neubacher, former superintendent

of the Point Reyes National Seashore, who

was recently removed for sexual harassment

and toxic work environment

charges at Yosemite, told local

environmental advocate Phyllis

Faber years ago that NPS had a

“plan” to get rid of all

working ranches at the seashore.

Neubacher, Faber recounted in

an article for the Point Reyes

Light, indicated that the “plan

would start with closure of the

oyster farm in Drakes Estero.

Once it was gone, the park

would stand by as environmental

groups brought lawsuits against

the surrounding ranches, claiming

their operations were degrading

water quality. The ranchers, whose

means were modest, would have no

choice but to shut down, bringing an

end to the 150-year ranching tradition

at Point Reyes.”

Drakes Bay Oyster Farm was closed

in 2014 by then-Secretary of the Interior

Ken Salazar in spite of Congressional

proof that the Seashore had falsified its

own data relating to the species it claimed

were damaged by the oyster farm. The Center

for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds

Project and the Resource Renewal Institute

filed suit in 2016 against Point Reyes National

Seashore to try to force non-renewal of the

ranchers’ leases. The suit was settled in July

2017, allowing the ranchers to hope for five-year

renewable leases rather than the one-year

leases the plaintiffs were asking for, but as part

of the larger plan, it put a financial strain on

the small family operations. The pattern is

increasingly familiar.

Setnicka said that, in his opinion, those

who support ranching at Point Reyes should

appeal to congressional representatives,

involve the media and remain engaged with

the process. “If you don’t stand up, you will be

run over.” And Sen. Dianne Feinstein has

been a loyal friend, though the new Congressional

Representative Jared Huffman, a former

environmental lawyer for the Natural

Resources Defense Council, may be more

conflicted in his support. Although the words

come easily in support of ranchers, Huffman

has been shown to act at cross-purposes. His

real support remains to be seen.

It’s clear that the Point Reyes National

Seashore, in its passive-aggressive way, will

continue to pay lip service to the enabling legislation

which specifies that ranchers in the

pastoral zone may continue their operations,

while blithely ignoring the stipulations of

NEPA and catering to environmental interests

and its own real in-house plan. But consider

this: these park biologists don’t know

how to manage habitat. Even if every one of

the Alphabet Ranches were decommissioned

and the elk were allowed to range freely over

the entire peninsula, the Park’s elk non-management

policy will have Point Reyes looking

like the mustang sanctuary of Marin County

in 20 years. These people are biologists. They

study individual species. They demonstrably

do not understand how to sustain habitat,

and by his own admission, Dave Press

“doesn’t really know that much about elk,”

since he’s more of a snowy plover and elephant

seal guy.

So what’s happened to the habitat on

Tomales Point that the elk have occupied for

the last 18 years? Pastures are alternately

denuded, dug up, and choked with dead and

rank grasses. The pastures are riddled with

trails marked not just by the hoofprints of

hundreds of elk, but the treads of countless

thousands of expensive hiking shoes, as

hordes of environmentally sensitive tourists

come trekking along the path to what was the

lower Pierce Point Ranch to view the herds

and photograph the magnificent scenery. If

the Spalettas, the Lucchesis, and the rest of the

ranchers in the pastoral zone know what’s

good for them in this dark dance, they’ll start

building fences to keep the elk, and the

tourists, at bay, and start bugling their story to

the world.

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