An endangered California sea otter has been found dead in an illegal fishing trap, prompting an investigation by state and federal wildlife authorities.
The southern sea otter, a male, was discovered by a beachgoer on Zmudowski State Beach near Moss Landing in northern Monterey County on April 18.
Investigators from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife say the nylon mesh trap — which was used to catch bait fish or crayfish — appears to have washed up on the beach with the dead otter in it. It might originally have been placed somewhere else, they added.
“You commonly see traps like this in rivers and lakes,” said Lt. Brian Bailie, with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “People use them to catch crayfish. You don’t see them oceanside ever. They aren’t legal to use in the ocean.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory is conducting a thorough investigation of the dead animal, which was a juvenile, or sub-adult. Southern sea otters are protected as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. It is illegal to harm or kill them under that law, and also under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Otters also protected by California state law.
The penalty for killing a sea otter is up to a $100,000 fine under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act and up to 1 year in jail.
“This is extremely serious,” said Rebecca Roca, an agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Sacramento. “Sea otters are beloved along the coast. It’s devastating when we find something like this. We are asking the public for any help they can give.”
Anyone with information about the incident is asked to contact the California Department of Fish and Wildlife at the CalTIP line at 1-888-334-2258 (callers may remain anonymous) or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 916-569-8444.
“Stuck in something like that, there was nothing it could do,” he said. “Otters have sharp teeth but I don’t think they are sharp enough to chew through nylon that tough. It’s really unfortunate. We need to find if these things are being used in other places. We don’t want to see this happen again.”
Sea otters play an important role along California’s coast. They eat sea urchins, for example, which otherwise can overpopulate the sea floor and consume kelp forests that provide food and shelter for fish and other ocean animals.
Historically there were about 16,000 sea otters from the Oregon-California border to Baja, Mexico. But they were hunted relentlessly in the late 1700s and early 1800s by Russian, British and American fur traders for their pelts, which are denser and softer than mink fur.
They were feared extinct until the 1930s, when about 50 were discovered in remote Big Sur coves. Protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1977, they began a slow comeback, and today their population is estimated at about 3,000. Over the last decade, however, the growth has stalled, in part because they have been unable to expand their range from the Monterey Bay area north up the San Mateo County coast due to an increasing number of attacks by great white sharks.
Federal laws have protected elephant seals, sea lions and other marine mammals that the sharks eat, growing their numbers. Scientists are studying possible proposals to one day move some otters inside San Francisco Bay to Tomales Bay in Marin County or other points north to help the population spread back across its historic range in Northern California.
Play VideoDuration 5:13Gov. Gavin Newsom announces proposal of $5.1 billion drought planCalifornia Gov. Gavin Newsom announces a proposal of a $5.1 billion investment for drought preparedness, infrastructure and response to ensure a more climate resilient system, in Merced County, Calif, on Monday, May 10, 2021. BY ANDREW KUHN
Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded his drought emergency declaration to 39 more counties Monday, underscoring the rapid deterioration of California’s water supply in recent weeks.
The governor broadened his earlier drought order, which was limited to two counties on the Russian River, to cover most of parched California, which is plunging into its second major drought in less than a decade.
Newsom didn’t issue any mandatory drought conservation measures, as his predecessor Jerry Brown did during the last drought.
But such mandatory orders, which could force urban Californians to cut back on outdoor usage, “are on the table” if the state has another dry winter, said Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot.
Newsom issued the declaration shortly before arriving at San Luis Reservoir on the west side of Merced County, where he announced a proposal for a plethora of short- and long-term drought-assistance measures totaling $5.1 billion.
Some Newsom critics say he has been reluctant to declare a statewide drought for fear of angering voters with a recall election coming this fall. But hydrology is forcing the issue.
Since he issued a regional drought emergency last month for Sonoma and Mendocino counties, warm spring temperatures have melted and evaporated most of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which was well below average to begin with. Relatively little snowmelt — normally a big piece of the state’s summer and fall supply — reached California’s reservoirs.
The Sierra is producing “far less inflow into the reservoirs than any modeling would have predicted,” Crowfoot told The Sacramento Bee. “Much of the snowpack has melted into the ground.” Many of the major reservoirs, such as Folsom Lake and Lake Oroville, are just half as full as they normally are this time of year.
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While Newsom stopped short of declaring a statewide emergency, he acknowledged that the pain from the drought is spreading throughout much of the state at a rapid clip.
“We looked at the issue of hydrology, we looked at the issue of snowmelt,” Newsom said as he stood in front of San Luis Reservoir, where much of the shoreline was exposed because of low water levels. He bemoaned “this climate-induced drought, which obviously is extreme and self evident.”
Still, he urged Californians to take voluntary steps, like keeping showers to five minutes, fixing leaks and switching to drought-tolerant landscaping.
Crowfoot said the emergency declaration could lead to orders from the state water board that would curtail farmers and others from pulling water from rivers that feed into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of the California water delivery network. That will leave more water flowing through the system, which is necessary to flush salinity out of the Delta and into the ocean.
The emergency order could also speed up the installation of temporary rock barriers in the Delta, like the state used in the last drought, to prevent salt from getting into the estuary.
The order in the the Tulare basin would enhance the state’s ability to truck emergency supplies to communities that ran out of drinking water in the last drought and could become vulnerable again, he said.
In addition, Newsom is proposing spending for long-term projects, including $500 million to help communities that will have to permanently retire farmland because of the state’s groundwater-management law; and $200 million to help repair major San Joaquin Valley canals that have buckled because of subsidence — the phenomenon that occurs when so much groundwater is pumped that the valley floor sinks. That includes the California Aqueduct, the Delta-Mendota Canal and the Friant-Kern Canal.
Elected officials who accompanied Newsom to the reservoir applauded his plans for improving the state’s water infrastructure. “We can stop the boom-and-bust cycle of drought and no water, and a wet year,” said state Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, whose district includes parts of Merced County.
Just 10 miles off the coast of Los Angeles lurks an environmental disaster over 70 years in the making, which few have ever heard about. That is, until now, thanks to the research of a University of California marine scientist named David Valentine.
Working with little more than rumors and a hunch, curiosity guided him 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. A few hours of research time and an autonomous robotic submersible unearthed what had been hidden since the 1940s: countless barrels of toxic waste, laced with DDT, littering the ocean floor in between Long Beach and Catalina Island.
After 70-plus years of inaction, Valentine’s research has finally helped initiate a huge research effort to reveal the extent of the contamination.
But this offshore dump site is only a part of the story of environmental damage from years of DDT discharge along the coast of Southern California — a story which likely won’t be closed for decades to come because of its ongoing impact, including a recently discovered alarming and unprecedented rate of cancer in the state’s sea lion population, with 1 in every 4 adult sea lions plagued with the disease.
The history of DDT dumping
The chemical DDT was invented in 1939 and used during World War II as a pesticide helping to protect troops from insect-borne diseases like Malaria. After the war, production of the chemical ramped up and it became routinely used in the spraying of crops, and even over crowded beaches, to eliminate pests like mosquitos.
But in the 1960s, DDT was discovered to be toxic. Over time, eating food laced with DDT builds up inside the tissues of animals and even humans, resulting in harmful side effects. The EPA now calls it a “probable human carcinogen.” In 1972, when the U.S. government started taking environmental pollution seriously with legislation like the Clean Air Act, DDT was banned in the United States.
The largest DDT manufacturer in the U.S., Montrose Chemical Corporation, was located along the Southern California coast in the city of Torrance. From 1947 through 1982, Montrose manufactured and distributed DDT worldwide. In doing so, a byproduct mix of toxic sludge made up of petrochemicals, DDT and PCBs was produced.
For decades, that hazardous waste was disposed of in two ways. Some of the toxic pollution was dumped into storm drains and the sewer system, which was then pumped out to sea through outflow pipes, 2 miles offshore of the city of Rancho Palos Verdes.
The rest of the waste was disposed of in barrels which were loaded onto barges and floated 10 to 15 miles offshore to waste dumping sites off Catalina Island and then jettisoned into the ocean.
While it may seem hard to believe, at least part of the dumping was legally permitted. Back then, Valentine says, the prevailing thought was the ocean’s were so huge that they could never be compromised. The mantra was “dilution is the solution to pollution” — in hindsight a naïve notion.
But while the designated dumping site was very deep — in 3,000 feet of water — Valentine says shortcuts were taken, with barrels being dumped much closer to shore. And, in an effort to get the barrels to sink, there is evidence that many were slashed, allowing poison to leak, as they were dropped into the ocean.
For decades, the existence of these toxic barrels was surmised only by a very small group of scientists and regulators. That’s despite a startling report produced in the 1980s by a California Regional Water Quality Control Board scientist named Allan Chartrand, which asserted there may be as many as 500,000 barrels laced with DDT sitting on the ocean floor.
The report was largely ignored. But after nearly 30 years, Valentine dusted it off as he began his quest to see if these barrels existed.
The inshore toxic waste site
Unlike the deep water dumping sites, the shallower toxic site — called the Palos Verdes Shelf — 2 miles off the beaches of Rancho Palos Verdes was well-known and documented. In 1996, this zone was declared a Superfund clean-up site by the EPA, now comprising a 34-square-mile area. Montrose was sued and after a protracted legal battle ending in late 2000 the companies involved, including Montrose, settled for $140 million.
Over the past two decades, most of the money has been used by a program called the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP) to try to restore the contaminated sites. Half of the funds were allocated to the EPA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to rehabilitate ecosystems impacted by the poison.
DDT gets into the food chain when it is consumed from the contaminated ocean bottom by tiny marine creatures, which are then eaten by small fish, which are then consumed by larger fish and marine mammals, like sea lions. Over time DDT builds up in the tissues and blubber of marine animals, a process called bioaccumulation. To this day, signs all along the Southern California coast warn fishermen not to eat certain fish. Despite this, you cannot get DDT contamination from swimming in the water.
Scientists say the contamination at this shallower water site is the most likely food chain route which leads to DDT building up in sea lion blubber. That’s because there is a much greater amount of marine life living in shallower water. But that does not rule out contamination from the much deeper site as well.
The last project of the effort — just completed — was the commissioning of an artificial reef just off the beaches of Rancho Palos Verdes. To accomplish this, NOAA hired a team of scientists from the Southern California Marine Science Institute and Vantuna Research Group at Occidental College to design and deploy the reef.
The reef building effort was led by Jonathan Williams, a marine biologist from Occidental College. The project involved strategically placing more than 70,000 tons of quarry rock on the ocean bottom just off the beach. Williams says that the reef was an immediate success, with thousands of fish flocking to the rocks.
This reef site is much closer to shore than the contamination site, which is 2 miles from land. That’s by design. Williams says the idea is to construct new habitat for fish and kelp in uncontaminated areas to build up healthy populations of fish. This helps limit the amount of toxins, like DDT, which enters the food chain.
As predators at the top of the food chain, DDT in fish is also a danger to people. Williams says this is especially true of underserved communities who are mostly likely to subsistence fish, eating what they catch. In this way, NOAA’s project addresses environmental justice by attempting to make fish more safe to eat.
Two miles offshore, Williams says that after years of measuring high levels of DDT on the Palos Verdes Shelf, levels have started to drop precipitously, a sign that some of the DDT may finally be starting to break down.
In all, his time-limited work yielded visuals of 60 barrels. Besides bringing back video of the leaking barrels, his team was also able to collect samples from the ocean floor. One of them registered a contamination 40 times greater than the highest contamination at the Superfund site, indicating that the toxins down deep are still very concentrated.
But before his discovery in 2011, Valentine placed part of the blame for the lack of knowledge about the barrels on the lack of technology to find it. It’s only in the past couple of decades that the technology became available to make this deep water research feasible.
Coincidentally, on the very day CBS News went to visit Valentine in Southern California, Scripps Institution of Oceanography began a two-week mission to survey almost 50,000 feet of the deep ocean seafloor.
Employing a large research vessel called the Sally Ride, 31 scientists and crew members, and two high-tech autonomous robots they call Roombas, the team used sophisticated sonar to map the ocean bottom and assess how many barrels there are.
As of our last conversation with Eric Terrill, the team leader, the final number had still not been tallied. But even as early as a week into the research mission, Terrill described detecting tens of thousands of targets and said the number of barrels seemed “overwhelming.”
The two-week mission is now complete, but the team is still putting together the pieces. They expect to have a final report published at the end of April.
Sea lions in trouble
Located right near the Golden Gate Bridge, the mission of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California is to rescue marine mammals in distress. Since 1975, the organization says they have rescued 24,000.
In December, the team published a 30-year study on sea lions, finding an alarming statistic: 25% of adult sea lions have cancer.
CBS News interviewed the lead veterinarian Dr. Cara Field. She called the number of sea lions with cancer both “extremely alarming” and “unprecedented in wildlife.” Last year the Marine Mammal Center had to euthanize 29 sea lions because of cancer.
In the report, the research team pointed to a combination of herpesvirus and contaminants like DDT and PCBs as the cause of cancer. In all cases of cancer, sea lions had elevated levels of DDT and PCBs in their blubber. The theory goes that the contaminants weaken the body’s immune system, making the virus more effective.
Because sea lions travel up and down the California coast yearly, scientists believe they may pick up the contaminants when they are near their breeding site on the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California.
And while it seems logical that the sea lion contamination is coming from polluted sites in shallow water, scientists do not yet know how much of the DDT from barrels in deeper water may be entering the food chain. This, they say, will require more research.
While there are still many unanswered questions, one lesson from this story of DDT contamination is clear: When humans callously pollute the environment it can have consequences for generations to come. One current example is human-caused climate change. The question is, how much of a burden will our children and grandchildren have to bear as result of our choices?
Yurok Tribe will create a captive breeding facility in Redwood national park for birds that could be released as early as this fall
Sierra CistoneSat 27 Mar 2021 01.00 EDT
After a century of absence, the endangered California condor is set to return to the skies of the Pacific north-west.
The condor once soared from British Columbia to Mexico, but habitat loss, overhunting and, most significantly, poisoning from hunting ammunition drove the birds to near extinction.
By the early 1980s, these threats had caused such a precipitous decline in the population that only 22 remained in the wild. In an effort to regrow their numbers, biologists captured the remaining birds and began a breeding program.
Since then, the condor has been reintroduced to south and central California. Its population has expanded into parts of Utah, Arizona and Baja California in Mexico, with experts estimating the number of free flying birds at more than 300.
Now, the bird will be reintroduced in northern California. The reintroduction efforts there have largely been led by the Yurok Tribe, whose ancestral land encompasses large swaths of forest and coastline in northern California and parts of Redwood national park that were once home to the condor.
The tribe has planned for the bird’s return for over a decade, and its proposal was accepted on 24 March by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Through close collaboration with Redwood national park, the tribe will begin the creation of a captive breeding facility within the boundaries of the park. The facility will house captive-bred condors that could be released into the park as early as this fall.
Although the condor population is on the uphill, its survival in the Golden state still faces challenges. California has banned lead shot and ammunition, but the laws are unlikely to completely eradicate the lead poisoning problem. Poaching of wildlife and illegal use of lead ammunition could still pose a risk to wildlife and any reintroduced condors, said Chris West, the Yurok Tribe’s condor program manager.
Yet West is hopeful about the bird’s future. Starting this new population of California condors in the far northern portion of the state could offer the bird a better chance at continued survival overall, he argued.
“There’s a big success in the number of birds out there, but you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket,” West said.
Increasing the population could also help buffer the species against the increasing effects of wildfires, climate change and loss of genetic diversity. Condors are an important part of a healthy and functioning ecosystem. As scavengers, the birds are an essential part of nature’s clean-up crew.
Strong, big beaks allow them to open fresh carcasses, a task too difficult for their close relatives, the turkey vulture. Their efforts allow other wildlife to access the carcasses, and accelerates the recycling of nutrients on the landscape.
For the Yurok people, the return of the condor presents a milestone. The condor plays a critical role in the people’s tradition and culture, and the return of the bird to ancestral territory brings with it a sense of renewal for both people and the land, said Tiana Williams-Claussen, the director of Yurok Tribe’s wildlife department.
In 2003, the Yurok elder community identified the bird as the single-most important land animal to bring back to ancestral land. The reintroduction program was born only a few years after that decision, according to Williams-Claussen.
“When I actually see a condor in the sky again,” Williams-Claussen said, “it’s just mending that wound that was carried by my elders, is carried by me and that, at least in part, is not going to be carried by my children.”
It’s official: two wolves that have been carving out a territory in Siskiyou County over the past few months have made the area their home – and now they have a new name.
The Whaleback Pair’s territory encompasses about 480 square miles of Siskiyou County and extends slightly south into Shasta County, according to a map recently released by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Typically packs are named for some geographical feature where their home range is,” Laudon explained. A map of the area from 1900 refers to the mountain as Black Crater, but it was renamed Whaleback on a 1930 map.
Siskiyou County Wolf Liaison Patrick Griffin said there have been no confirmed issues between the wolves and local livestock since the male wolf, OR-85, first came to the county in November 2020 in search of a mate.
The wolves have been moving around Siskiyou County together since then, and Laudon has been hard at work collecting samples of their genetic material to determine more about the mysterious female wolf’s origins.
“We don’t have a full DNA profile on her yet,” Laudon said of the gray colored wolf. “We have her DNA on some hair and a scat – neither yielded complete profiles but the hair is more complete than the scat and based on that our CDFW geneticist reports that the results are consistent with female.”
That sample has gone to a genetics lab at University of Idaho, Laudon said, where geneticists will compare it to other wolf DNA from Oregon, Washington and Idaho to see if they can determine what pack she was born in before dispersing to find a mate.
“OR-85’s ID will remain the same. If there are pups this year, all of their profiles will be collected from pup poops at pup rearing locations after they have left,” Laudon said. “They will be named WHA02, WHA03, etc. with the relevant sex initial. So all the known wolves that we have sampled in California have identification.”
Griffin, who worked as Siskiyou County’s Agricultural Commissioner for 10 years before retiring in 2015, is a local rancher himself. He works closely with Laudon, the CDFW, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, local ranchers and the county to mitigate issues that might arise with Siskiyou’s new wolf residents.
Wolves that are dispersing “usually move on,” he said, but these two wolves “tend to stay in this location,” hence their new moniker.
Griffin said there has been mortality among local livestock since November, but in the suspicious cases there was not enough evidence to determine how the animals died or whether wolves were involved.
“When there are wolves around, people are always suspicious,” Griffin said. “Ranchers think, ‘will a wolf kill this calf or not?’”
Laudon said OR-85 and his friend continue to travel through cattle operations on winter range “but there’s been no issues so far.”
Wolves typically survive on big game like deer and elk, but they will also eat roadkill, Laudon said.
It’s important to note that the CDFW nor any other organization has reintroduced wolves to California, Laudon said. Instead, these wolves and their predecessors have traveled hundreds of miles after being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in 1995 and 1996 in search of mates and territories to call their own.
OR-85 was born part of Oregon’s Mt. Emily Pack. He was collared in February of 2020 and struck out on his own in June. The wolf, with shaggy black fur, took a short trip to Nevada and then returned to Oregon before crossing the border into California’s Modoc County in early November.
Two days after entering the state, OR-85 made his way to Siskiyou County and has been here ever since, Laudon said.
Skye Kinkade is the editor of the Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers and the Siskiyou Daily News. She is a fourth generation Siskiyou County resident and has lived in Mount Shasta and Weed her entire life.
a day agohttps://omny.fm/shows/kcbsam-on-demand/should-bear-hunting-be-banned/embed?style=cover
A Bay Area state senator is trying to ban bear hunting in California, but the hunting and wildlife lobby is pushing back.
San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener said the ban on hunting black bears would stop the animal from going the way of the brown bear.
“Brown bears are extinct in California due to being hunted to extinction,” he told KCBS Radio.
Wiener said the ban would follow bans on hunting bobcats in the state, and the use of hounds to track bears while hunting.
“I’m not criticizing anyone for hunting,” the state senator noted. “A lot of people do want to hunt. But, we also have the obligation to take a step back as Californians and look at what our values are. A lot of people are, frankly, surprised to hear that we still allow recreational black bear hunting.”https://246cbe00e86fb69bfa10c02104a82a9d.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Bill Gaines is not one of them. He’s the principal at Gaines and Associates, which lobbies for wildlife-related issues.
Gaines told KCBS Radio that of the 40 senate districts in California, only one of them does not have a bear in it.
Gaines said bears have been breaking into cabins in Tahoe and ruining beekeepers’ livings by knocking over their hives.
Plus, he added, money raised by bear hunting supports conservation efforts.
“You have to buy a bear tag,” Gaines said. “They’re roughly about $50, and those monies go into what we call the big game management account, which is administered by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.”https://246cbe00e86fb69bfa10c02104a82a9d.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Wiener doesn’t think that justifies hunting bears.
“We definitely should be funding conservation efforts, but to suggest that the only way we can fund it is by allowing hunting of bears – I just don’t agree with that argument,” he said. “We could also take the position, ‘well, we want more conservation money so let’s quadruple the number of bear tags that we issue
Known for its seaside bluffs and dense summer fog, Point Reyes National Seashore is a landscape of rolling coastal prairie blending into forests and marshlands, a sanctuary for hundreds of plants and animals and a destination for migrating birds and marine life.
Just a one-hour drive from San Francisco, the 71,000-acre peninsula serves as a haven for native California species like snowy plovers, red-legged frogs, coho salmon and tule elk.
The tule elk are one of the primary attractions of the park, which sees over 2 million visitors annually, and they can be easy to spot in the zones where they’re preserved.
The elks’ beauty and majesty is hard to miss; one frequent visitor to the park described their strange, high-pitched bugle as “otherworldly.” Once on the brink of extinction, tule elk were reintroduced into Point Reyes in 1978. Now, hundreds of elk live in three herds throughout the park.
But Point Reyes is also home to about 20 ranches that have operated in the park since the mid-1800s. And the tule elk are at the center of a major battle between ranchers, who say the elk are overpopulated and disruptive to their operations, and animal and environmental activists, who think that ranching has degraded the land, leaving it to resemble a “lunar landscape,” as one activist said. The park, the activists argue, should prohibit ranching and preserve the land entirely as wilderness to protect the elk and other species.
Conflict between ranchers and environmentalists is not uncommon in the West, where wildlife and agriculture often collide. Wild horses in Utah compete with cattle for resources; black-tailed prairie dogs in Wyoming are shot and poisoned by ranchers who consider them “pests”; and wolves, reintroduced in western states in the 1980s, are often blamed by ranchers for killing livestock.
The tule elk in Point Reyes have virtually no natural predators, so management of their population is left up to the National Park Service, which is in the process of implementing a wildlife management plan that includes killing elk in one of the three herds to control their numbers, a process known as culling.
One of the prime considerations for how to manage the tule elk is how their numbers affect the ranchers, who sold their land to the government when the park was established in 1962. Many stayed on the land and continued ranching under renewable five-year permits.
Environmental groups sued the National Park Service in 2016 for planning to extend leases for the ranchers from five to 20 years without analyzing the environmental impact, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The groups reached a settlement agreement in 2017 that required the park service to solicit public input and amend its 1980 general management plan with an Environmental Impact Statement before issuing any 20-year leases.
The park service considered six alternatives for its amended plan, ranging from eliminating ranching in the park altogether—an option favored in over 90 percent of the 7,600 public comments submitted to the agency—to the plan the park service says it prefers, which includes extending ranchers’ leases and limiting the population of the Drakes Beach herd of elk to 120 animals to prevent them from eating cattle feed, bothering cows and causing other disturbances. If the population were to exceed 120, the park service would begin culling. At the end of 2019, there were 138 tule elk in the Drakes Beach population.
On Sept. 18, 2020, the park service released its final Environmental Impact Statement, officially announcing its decision to go with its preferred option. That initiated a 30-day waiting period for the park service to conduct its final consultations with other agencies. That period ends on Sunday, after which a “Record of Decision” can be issued, finalizing the amended management plan and allowing leases to be extended and culling to begin.
A Serengeti of Wildlife
Wildlife biologist and California Director at Western Watersheds Project Laura Cunningham likes to picture what the Point Reyes peninsula might have been like 500 years ago: filled with huge herds of tule elk grazing on lush green coastal prairies while coho salmon swam in the creeks and pods of whales passed by off the coast.
“I imagine it as a place of just riches of biodiversity,” she said. “It must have been just a Serengeti of wildlife.”
In the late 1800s, tule elk were thought to no longer exist, hunted into extinction by settlers. But in 1874, a rancher discovered a herd of fewer than 30 tule elk on his land near Bakersfield, California. The herd was preserved, and now 5,700 tule elk live in about 22 herds around the state.
In 1978, 10 tule elk were introduced into Point Reyes National Seashore, fenced in at Tomales Point on the northernmost end of the peninsula to keep them off ranches. Twenty years later, 28 elk from the Tomales Point herd were relocated to Limantour Beach, about 20 miles south of Tomales Point on the east side of Drakes Estero, a large estuary in the center of the peninsula, establishing a second, free-ranging herd. From there, several of the elk migrated to Drakes Beach, on the west side of Drakes Estero, where a third herd of tule elk in Point Reyes now live.
The 2020 Environmental Impact Statement addresses how to manage the Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach herds, including the Drakes Beach culling plan.
The National Park Service looked into moving the elk somewhere else before settling on a lethal solution for reducing the population, said Melanie Gunn, park service outreach coordinator for Point Reyes National Seashore. The park service considered relocating individuals from the Drakes Beach herd to somewhere outside of Point Reyes, but tule elk within the park are known to have Johne’s Disease—a highly contagious and fatal bacterial infection that occurs among ruminant animals. The symptoms of the disease often do not appear until several months after an animal is infected. The elk could not be relocated without risking the spread of the disease to herds outside the park. Tule elk may have caught the disease from cattle in Point Reyes, and they can only be effectively tested for it after death.
When culling does begin—and it will, unless the Record of Decision does not come through—it will be conducted by the National Park Service and other conservation officials to ensure that genetic diversity and sex ratio are taken into account when selecting which indivudal elk to kill, especially considering the entire population descended from fewer than 30 individuals.
“It will be specific, not random,” Gunn said.
Driving through the ranching district—22,000 acres designated as a national historic district on the National Register of Historic Places—the smell of cow feces is distinctive. In some parts of the park during mid-October, scrub grass coats the landscape in a golden brown color; in other parts, hundreds of cattle stand on muddy land devoid of much vegetation.
Ranchers operate in the park under one of two types of leasing agreements: a special permit that limits their tenancy to five years, or a so-called reservation of use and occupancy, which gives ranchers use of the land for up to 25 years or, in some cases, for as long as the rancher is alive.
Bill Niman, who operates a beef ranch with about 300 cattle at the southern end of Point Reyes, has a lease that extends for the rest of his life. The deal is similar to ownership, in that he pays property taxes and maintains his facilities, but has some restrictions; for example, he can’t sell the property.
Niman and his wife Nicolette Hahn Niman, a former environmental lawyer and the author of a book defending small-scale, grass-fed beef farms, practice rotational grazing on their land. The couple move their cattle from one patch of land to another to allow time for the land to rest between grazing periods. This keeps the landscape full of diverse plants and helps the soil sequester carbon, they said.
“What we’re trying to do is mirror nature and manage the land in the way that nature would if humans were not interfering,” Niman said.
Located just north of Bolinas on the south end of the park, far from any tule elk herd, Hahn Niman said they don’t have an issue with elk on their ranch, thanks to park management.
But on some ranches, elk consume grass and supplemental cattle feed, like hay and alfalfa. Some ranchers have reported elk eating this supplemental food, but “it has not yet been identified as a significant or widespread problem,” the final Environmental Impact Statement said.
And Hahn Niman said she has heard about cases of elk creating more serious disturbance, with dozens of the animals entering barns and eating cattle feed, or acting aggressively toward cows. She spoke publicly on behalf of ranchers during the 2016 lawsuit.
“[Ranchers] have had a number of their heifers that have been injured or even had to be put down because they were mounted by large male tule elk,” Hahn Niman said. “It’s weird stuff like this that I didn’t understand until I talked directly with ranchers involved.”
She emphasized that ranchers love seeing tule elk and other wildlife in the park. Ranchers, she said, wanted the park to be established, and without the ranchers, the land, so near the Bay Area, would have instead been developed into prime real estate. But without wolves and bears and hardly any mountain lions, she said, the elk have to be managed and their population needs to be controlled.
“You don’t have the robust population of natural predators that once existed here; they’re almost entirely gone,” she said. “The only remaining predator really is the human.”
A Banned Volunteer
Diana Oppenheim volunteered for three years in Point Reyes National Seashore—a place she calls “literal magic.” She guided a monthly group that would start the day removing invasive species from the park’s sandy coastal dunes, and then led the group in a yoga class on the beach.
Oppenheim said she was shocked when she started to hear rumors that the National Park Service was planning to cull the Drakes Beach herd.
“I was a very heavily involved volunteer; I was there all the time and I didn’t know this was happening,” Oppenheim said. “There was a big lack of public awareness around this issue, and I felt like if people knew, we could change the course of what was going to happen.”
She started ForElk.org to increase awareness of the park service’s management plan, putting up tables at grocery stores and farmers’ markets and approaching visitors at the park. Soon, Oppenheim was organizing protests. In August 2019, the park service opened its 45-day public comment period.
As the momentum of the movement accelerated, Oppenheim also made her views clear on her social media accounts. The National Park Service, she said, asked her to remove all references to her working as a volunteer in Point Reyes, in order to protect the agency’s neutrality on the issue. When she refused, Oppenheim—once named the park’s “volunteer of the year”—was banned from volunteering in Point Reyes National Seashore, she said.
“That only fueled my fire,” Oppenheim added.
In late September, she and other activists in the Bay Area banded together to organize a demonstration. Nearly 300 people showed up to protest the culling plan and call for the ranches to be removed from the park.
“They’re going to actually kill these elk that have been brought back from extinction in order to appease these ranchers,” Oppenheim said.
A Crucial Role
The purpose of Point Reyes National Seashore—stated at the top of the legislation that created it—is to “save and preserve, for purposes of public recreation, benefit and inspiration” the undeveloped seashore.
Nowhere, activists say, does it mention the preservation of ranching. In fact, said Jack Gescheidt, an activist with the TreeSpirit Project, ranching is contradictory to the park’s purpose.
“You can either have large scale dairy and cattle operations in an area, or a national park,” he said, “you can’t have both.”
Gunn, however, disagreed. She said the park and the ranches have coexisted since the park’s establishment in 1962, and they will continue to do so.
In 2019, a congressional statement said multi-generational ranching is important economically and ecologically in Point Reyes and is “fully consistent with Congress’s intent for the management of Point Reyes National Seashore.”
Ranching, Gunn said, has been recognized by Congress as being “part of the fabric of Point Reyes National Seashore. It’s part of our responsibility to maintain.”
Hahn Niman said ranching can and should coexist with all wildlife in Point Reyes through regenerative practices.
“Ranching should be minimizing the use of chemicals and should be always attentive to mirroring natural systems,” she said, adding that ranchers should be “creating a vibrant space here for countless wild animals that are in fact living here.”
Elk biologist Julie Phillips said that tule elk are a vital part of the Point Reyes ecosystem, and can be considered a keystone species, because plants in the ecosystem rely on them to disperse seeds and maintain the native environment.
Phillips—who is opposed to ranching in Point Reyes—said she has observed native grasses return and landscapes restored after tule elk have been reintroduced in other areas around California.
If cattle are removed from Point Reyes, Phillips said, tule elk “will help restore that degraded land, and the elk will play a critical role in bringing back native habitat.”
Unlike so many species that went extinct after European settlement, tule elk got a second chance at survival. In an era where climate change is threatening to demolish Earth’s ecosystems, Oppenheim said, a biological hotspot like Point Reyes should be easy to protect.
“We’re facing a severe loss of biodiversity on the planet,” Oppenheim said, and preservation “should be a no brainer in some of the most protected lands of the world.”
She added: “Point Reyes is a gem and should absolutely be protected and restored.”
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has detected the
state’s first cases of a potentially crippling hoof disease in two
Roosevelt elk from a resident herd in Del Norte County.
Treponeme-associated hoof disease (TAHD) – commonly referred to as “elk
hoof disease” – can cause deformed, overgrown and otherwise damaged hooves.
The lesions and resulting deformities are painful and lead to limping,
lameness and even death as observed in other states. When the disease is
severe, elk may become too weak to graze, fight off other infections or
TAHD was first identified in elk from Washington state in the 1990s, but
much remains unknown about the disease. Currently, there is no known cure
TAHD has been documented in elk in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Recent
detections in Oregon’s Douglas County
<https://www.dfw.state.or.us/news/2020/04_April/040820.asp> were previously
the closest to California. TAHD gets its name from a bacterium, *Treponema* sp.,
that is associated with this disease, but other pathogens also may play a
role. Scientists at Washington State University who are experienced with
TAHD confirmed the disease in the two Roosevelt elk from Del Norte County.
It is unknown what impact TAHD may have on elk populations in California or
other states. California is home to three subspecies of elk – Rocky
Mountain elk, Roosevelt elk and tule elk – that together inhabit
approximately 25 percent of the state. In other states, both Rocky Mountain
and Roosevelt elk have contracted TAHD. To date, there are no known cases
of TAHD among tule elk.
While the disease appears to be highly infectious among elk, there is no
evidence that it affects humans. Still, hunters who harvest an elk
exhibiting signs of deformed or damaged hooves should exercise caution and
practice safe hygiene when processing, cooking and consuming the meat.
Hunters also are encouraged to submit hoof samples to CDFW from suspect elk.
CDFW will be working with natural resource agencies in other western states
and academic partners to increase surveillance for TAHD in California, plan
management actions and facilitate research.
Animal rights activists carry the bodies of slaughtered animals as they hold a protest march during the 9th Annual National Animal Rights Day in Los Angeles on June 2, 2019.Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
THE FACTORY farming industry has had enough of Direct Action Everywhere, the controversial animal liberation activist group.
The California Farm Bureau Federation, the powerful agribusiness trade group, along with its local affiliates, has pushed for aggressive policing and prosecutions of Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE. Now, records obtained by The Intercept show that the California Farm Bureau worked behind closed doors to limit legal exemptions that DxE has long claimed provide protections for its work.
DxE, which is based in Berkeley, California, has waged a provocative campaign of civil disobedience in recent years, staging actions that the group calls “open rescues,” in which volunteers brazenly walk into meat plants and seize animals, many of which are facing slaughter, often ferrying them to medical tents erected outside the facility or to local veterinarians.
The actions, which have included rescues at meat and egg plants over the last two years in Sonoma County, have seized headlines and drawn national attention to the organization’s cause — while mobilizing opposition within the factory farming industry. DxE has claimed that its actions are protected under an obscure section of state law, California Penal Code §597e, which authorizes individuals to enter pounds to provide nourishment for neglected animals.
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In DxE’s view, the statute allows legal entry into an area in which animals are confined if the animals have been deprived of food and water for over 12 hours. The group consulted with Hadar Aviram, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, to develop a modern legal interpretation of §597e, which was originally passed in the 1870s and has rarely been cited in court. In DxE’s view, any commercial animal agriculture site constitutes a pound, given that the term simply refers to a facility for confined animals, a standard that is reflected in eight states with similar statutes.
That argument has enraged the animal agriculture interests throughout California, which have leaned on authorities to take a more aggressive response to DxE.
“In my view, what they are doing is bordering on terrorism involving the use of illegal practices to push their points of view,” said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, an affiliate of the California Farm Bureau Federation, in an interview with KSRO radio host Pat Kerrigan. Following an action in which hundreds of DxE activists entered an egg farm in Petaluma to free chickens and care for them in medical tents set up around the facility by the group, Tesconi called for farmers to “work more closely with law enforcement and the DA’s office to provide the tools they need to fully prosecute actions like this.” (The police, notably, euthanized many of the chickens, which were found by veterinarians to be starving and unable to walk from being bred in sheds with thousands of birds.)
Behind closed doors, the California legislature moved last summer to redefine §597e, adding language to the code that explicitly exempts factory farms. The legal shift received virtually no attention or substantive legislative debate. The legislation that made the change was sponsored by Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, whose bill, AB 1553, was presented as a “technical, nonsubstantive” changethat required a lower threshold of scrutiny. The bill sailed through committee and was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last June.
DxE strongly disputes that the bill was merely a technical change and was shocked to discover the discreet push to amend the code. “Over one hundred activists have relied on §597e to protect them from politically-motivated prosecutions,” said DxE co-founder Wayne Hsiung, who is also a former visiting law professor at Northwestern School of Law. “We’ve obtained dismissal or diversion of charges in dozens of cases where people were trying to give aid to starving animals.”
The California Farm Bureau denies promoting the bill, despite disclosures showing that the group lobbied on the Fong bill. “The California Farm Bureau did not actively advocate on the legislation, either for or against,” wrote Dave Kranz, a spokesperson for the California Farm Bureau. “We did take part in technical discussions about the bill and potential impacts to California agriculture, as was correctly disclosed.”
Fong’s office and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The California Farm Bureau’s claim that the group acted merely as a neutral observer, and did not seek to limit the scope of §597e, appears unlikely given the group’s advocacy over the last year.
Robert Spiegel, a lobbyist with the California Farm Bureau in Sacramento, spoke at the Flamingo Resort & Conference Center in Santa Rosa last May to explain to farmers in Sonoma County how his organization had worked to respond to the threat posed by animal rights activists.
During his remarks, Spiegel referenced the interpretation produced by Aviram on behalf of DxE and informed the group that California Farm Bureau’s “senior legal counsel as well as other individuals in our operations” produced a counter-memo to dispute Aviram’s arguments. DxE shared a recording of Spiegel’s remarks and, using a records request, obtained a copy of Spiegel’s memo, which had been sent to the Sonoma County district attorney’s office as well as to other prosecutors in California.
The memo attempts to dispute DxE’s rationale for its use of §597e by claiming that even if animal farms are “pounds,” the group may not claim there is an “imminent threat” if they rely on past video evidence of abuse or deprivation.
Far from taking a neutralstance, the memo strongly suggests the California Farm Bureau’s lobbying team took an active role in shaping the interpretation of §597e.
Around the country, animal agriculture interests have worked carefully to criminalize similar forms of activism around factory farms, including hidden camera investigations. The Intercept previously obtained emails showing a bill signed into law in Idaho that provided criminal penalties for filming animal abuse at factory farms had been quietly authored by a dairy lobbyist — one of many so-called ag-gag laws enacted around the country. A federal judge later overturned most of the statute. Farm Bureau groups have worked to enact similar laws in Missouri, Iowa, Utah, and other states.
The California Farm Bureau wields significant influence in state politics. The group spends upward of $600,000 a year peddling influence in Sacramento with a team of eight in-house lobbyists, according to disclosures.
In 2018, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, responding to a wave of open rescues, brought in a national farm industry group known as the Animal Agriculture Alliance to host seminars for farmers on how to push back against future DxE activism. The group has promoted ag-gag laws and in more recent years sought to pressure law enforcement to view animal rights activists as terror threats. The alliance relies on financial support from the American Farm Bureau, the California Farm Bureau’s national affiliate, as well as the National Pork Industry Foundation.
“The Farm Bureau wants to change §597e because it knows that factory farms routinely allow animals to starve to death,” added Hsiung. “It’s the result of a system that has operated in secrecy, and ruthless pursuit of profit, for decades.”