Montana FWP officials euthanized a pair of grizzly bears after they several depredations on llamas, sheep, goat and chickens over time near Whitefish. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
KALISPELL, Mont. — Montana wildlife officials said Tuesday that state bear management specialists killed a pair of grizzly bears near Whitefish that had been involved in numerous livestock attacks.
An adult female grizzly bear was captured on Monday and its yearling captured on Tuesday in the Haskill Basin area.
The animals were euthanized because of a history of killing livestock including sheep, llamas, chickens and a goat.
Last week, authorities killed an adult male grizzly bear in the Dupuyer area after it was suspected of attacking calves across numerous ranches.
The following was sent out by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks:
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear management specialists euthanized a pair of grizzly bears after numerous depredations on llamas, sheep, goat, and chickens over time near Whitefish.
FWP specialists captured an adult female grizzly bear on May 31 and its yearling on June 1 in the Haskill Basin area. The decision was made to kill both bears due to their history of livestock depredations and in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The bears most recently entered an enclosure holding numerous animals on private property and killed a llama. The bear pushed through a gate to enter the pen where the llama was located along with other animals, including six wallaroos. FWP staff responded to assist the landowner and continue efforts to capture the bears.
The adult female bear was previously captured and fitted with a GPS radio collar, but the collar was malfunctioning and came off in the summer of 2019. Data collected from the radio collar identified the bear at several sites where sheep, llamas, and chickens were killed around Whitefish. Attempts to recapture the adult female were unsuccessful during 2020.
Earlier this spring, FWP received reports of sheep killed off East Edgewood Drive. Staff with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services set a trap in the area and attempted to capture the bear but was unsuccessful. Cameras set up at the site identified the adult female and yearling. Several days later, the bears killed goats on private property in Haskill Basin. Additional traps and cameras were set but efforts to capture the bears was unsuccessful until most recently. Reports of chickens killed on private property in the area persisted at the same time.
Traditional meat processor JBS, with which the plant-based food company competes, has fallen victim to a cyberattack.
Evan Niu, CFA(TMFNewCow)Jun 2, 2021 at 1:39PMAuthor Biohttps://platform.twitter.com/widgets/follow_button.06c6ee58c3810956b7509218508c7b56.en.html#dnt=false&id=twitter-widget-0&lang=en&screen_name=TMFNewCow&show_count=true&show_screen_name=true&size=l&time=1622665833680
Shares of Beyond Meat (NASDAQ:BYND) were up by 7.9% as of 1:21 p.m. EST Wednesday after traditional meat processing company JBS (OTC:JBSAY) had its operations disrupted by a ransomware attack. Based on Brazil, JBS is the largest meat processor in the world.
The cyberattack, which JBS disclosed earlier this week, impacted the company’s servers and IT infrastructure in North America and Australia. The company immediately suspended the use of all affected systems and has been working diligently to restore them. In an update provided on Tuesday, JBS said that its operations in Mexico and the U.K. were not affected. Nine of JBS’s plants in the U.S. were shut down on Tuesday, but the company said that it expected the “vast majority” of its food plants to be fully operational Wednesday.
IMAGE SOURCE: BEYOND MEAT.
The hackers are believed to be based in Russia, according to JBS and the U.S. government. This ransomware attack comes just a month after a similar incursion temporarily crippled Colonial Pipeline, which significantly disrupted the supply of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel to the East Coast. The attacks highlight vulnerabilities in the underlying infrastructure that many U.S. businesses rely on.
Pipeline stocks jumped last month on Colonial Pipeline’s woes, and some rival food producers’ stocks are similarly rising in light of JBS’s troubles. While a protracted disruption of the company’s operations could lead to higher meat prices, potentially making plant-based alternatives more attractive, any meat shortages caused by the attack are expected to be short term in nature.
Since the shutdowns of JBS’s meat processing plants should only last a day or two, it’s unlikely that the attack will translate into a meaningful boost for Beyond Meat’s business.
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Brazil-based JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, has shuttered all of its US-based beef plants as of Tuesday while responding to a cyberattack.
The shutdowns impacted all nine beef plants, located in Arizona, Texas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wisconsin, Utah, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to officials from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents more than 25,000 JBS employees. JBS’s US-based pork plants are still operational.
The shuttered plants produce nearly one-quarter of U.S. beef supplies. In total, JBS employs more than 66,000 workers across 84 US-based locations.
The attack raised concerns of a potential meat shortage in the U.S. and several other countries impacted by the situation. It wasn’t immediately clear how the shutdown would affect meat prices.
JBS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Bloomberg was first to report on the shutdowns.
IHS Markit vice chairman Daniel Yergin weighs in on the impact of the colonial pipeline shutdown and his outlook for renewable energy.
JBS USA said it discovered on Sunday that an “organized cybersecurity attack” had impacted some of its computer systems in North America and Australia. The company noted it would “take time” to resolve the cybersecurity breach and warned it “may delay certain transactions with customers and suppliers.”
UFCW called on the company to pay workers impacted by the plant shutdowns.
“As the union for JBS meatpacking workers across the country, UFCW is pleased JBS is working around the clock to resolve this, and UFCW is urging JBS to ensure that all of its meatpacking workers receive their contractually guaranteed pay as these plant shutdowns continue,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement.
JBS has yet to publicly disclose that it was targeted by a ransomware attack. The White House said it was aware of the situation and indicated a criminal group likely based in Russia was believed to be responsible.
“JBS notified the administration that the ransom demand came from a criminal organization likely based in Russia. The White House is engaging directly with the Russian government on this matter and delivering the message that responsible states do not harbor ransomware criminals,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a press briefing.
A criminal organization likely based in Russia is believed to be behind a ransomware attack on JBS, one of the largest meat producers in the world, White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday.
The news came just weeks after a ransomware attack shut down the Colonial Pipeline, which provides fuel to much of the eastern United States. The attack caused gas shortages in some places on the East Coast and the company eventually paid the ransom to restart the flow of gas.
“Meat producer JBS notified us on Sunday that they are the victims of a ransomware attack. The White House has offered assistance to JBS and our team and the Department of Agriculture have spoken to their leadership several times,” Jean-Pierre said.
“JBS notified the administration that the ransom demand came from a criminal organization likely based in Russia. The White House is engaging directly with the Russian government on this matter and delivering the message that responsible states do not harbor ransomware criminals,” she added.
The logo of global meatpacker JBS is seen in the city of Jundiai, Brazil June 1, 2017. A ransomware attack on the company is reportedly affecting its operations in Australia and the United States. (REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker/File Photo)
Jean-Pierre said the FBI is investigating the ransomware attack along with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). She also said the Department of Agriculture is in touch with other meat processors and that the administration is “assessing” whether the attack may cause supply shortages.
“Combating ransomware is a priority for the administration. President Biden has already launched a rapid strategic review to address the increased threat of ransomware,” Jean-Pierre added.
JBS publicly said it was the victim of “an organized cybersecurity attack” in a Monday press release. It said the attack affected “some of the servers supporting its North American and Australian IT systems.”
Thousands of the workers for the company in Australia haven’t been able to go to work and the country’s agricultural minister said he expects only “limited capacity” to return in “the next couple of days.”
Bloomberg Law reported the company has seen widespread shutdowns in the United States too.
JBS did not immediately return a request for comment asking how widespread the ransomware attack’s effects on its U.S. operations are and whether it would pay the ransom.
The USDA did not immediately answer questions about how widespread the attack’s effects on JBS’ operations in the U.S. are and whether it is pushing JBS not to pay the ransom – as the government advises companies hit by such attacks to avoid incentivizing more hacking.
Chronic exposure to increased levels of fine particulate matter (sometimes shortened to PM2.5) that is released from farms “increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, and stroke,” an analysis of the study noted.
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Notably, deaths associated with farm pollution are more localized than deaths that occur with greenhouse gas pollution. Communities upwind from farms discharging the pollutants are at greatest risk, said Jason Hill, University of Minnesota professor and a lead author of the study. In other words, the health effects from agriculture-based air pollution tend to be more localized, dependent upon local weather patterns and other factors.
The biggest culprit behind the deaths from farm pollution, in the study’s estimation, is ammonia, a chemical that’s released by manure and fertilizer, and which often combines with other pollutants found on farms, including nitrogen and sulfur. Hill, speaking with The Washington Post about the study, pointed out that animal waste is often stored in “lagoons” on farms, where huge amounts of ammonia are generated by the breakdown of animal feces. Ammonia is also created when farmers apply too much fertilizer on crops.
According to the study, livestock waste and fertilizer overuse likely accounted for about 12,400 deaths per year. While particulate matter emanating from “dust from tillage, livestock dust, field burning, and fuel combustion in agricultural equipment use” accounted for around 4,800 more deaths annually.
A spokesperson for Smithfield Foods, which runs industrial hog operations in North Carolina, agreed with Monroe’s contentions, citing a study from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which said it didn’t find air quality problems in the areas where they had farms. But that study has some noteworthy flaws, including the fact that monitors used to detect ammonia levels were set up far away from the farms themselves.
Ammonia is a reactive chemical, and is difficult to detect unless a significant amount is released at one time.
“Air quality–related health benefits … can be achieved through the actions of food producers and consumers,” the study’s authors said. Reducing particulate-related emissions, promoting dietary shifts in animals, reducing food loss and waste, and other methods are cited in the study as helpful to reducing the number of deaths from agricultural air pollution.
“The greatest benefits are from changes in livestock waste management and fertilizer application practices,” the study said. “Producer-side interventions in the 10 percent of counties with the highest mitigation potential alone could prevent 3,600 deaths per year.”
Methods based out of regenerative agriculture — described as “a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm” by the Climate Reality Project — could also be beneficial for scaling back farm-based air pollution, particularly in California, where such efforts could potentially reduce the impact of wildfires in the state. Such methods (including encouraging animals to graze natural plants, shrubs, or grass on the land, rather than animal feed, and engaging in no-till farming strategies to increase moisture levels in the soil) have been cited by farmer Alexis Koefoed as helping her family’s farm survive a wildfire last year.
“I think what the fire reinforced for me is that regenerative agriculture, managing the soil, using animals as grazers to build healthy soil is absolutely the direction to go in,” Koefoed said.
The animals were rejected by several countries over fears they had bovine bluetongue virus which, although it does not affect humans, causes lameness and haemorrhaging among cattle.
A confidential report by Spanish government veterinarians has said that more than 850 cows that spent months aboard a ship wandering across the Mediterranean are not fit for transport anymore and should be killed.
The cows were kept in what an animal rights activist called “hellish” conditions on a vessel named Karim Allah, which docked in the southeastern Spanish port of Cartagena on Thursday after struggling to find a buyer for the cattle during the past two months.
The beasts were rejected by several countries over fears they had bovine bluetongue virus. The insect-borne virus causes lameness and haemorrhaging among cattle. Bluetongue does not affect humans.
The veterinarians’ report concluded that the animals had suffered from the lengthy journey. Some of them were unwell and not fit for transport outside of the European Union, nor should they be allowed in the EU. Euthanasia would be the best solution for their health and welfare, it said.
The report did not say if the cattle had bluetongue disease.
“It is not even mentioned, which is very surprising,” said Miquel Masramon, a lawyer representing the ship owner Talia Shipping Line. The ship is registered in Lebanon, according to VesselFinder.
“My impression is that they will definitely go ahead with the slaughter and destruction of the animals and it’ll be difficult for us to prevent it,” he said.
Masramon said he would push for the return of blood samples taken from the animals and impounded by authorities on Thursday to be released and tested “to prove if there is any bluetongue.”
The Agriculture Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The vessel originally left Cartagena to deliver the cattle to Turkey. But authorities there blocked the shipment and suspended live animal imports from Spain, fearing bluetongue infection.
That rejection turned the ship into an international pariah. Several countries refused it entry even to replenish animal feed, forcing the cows to go several days with just water.
The cows likely have severe health problems after their “hellish” crossing, said animal rights activist Silvia Barquero, director of the Igualdad Animal NGO.
“What has happened to the waste produced by all these animals for two months? We are sure they are in unacceptable sanitary conditions,” Barquero told.
The Agriculture Ministry’s experts counted 864 animals alive on board. Twenty-two cows died at sea, with two corpses still aboard. The remains of the others that died were chopped up and thrown overboard during the journey, the report said.
Ownership of the cattle is unclear.
The exporter, World Trade, said it is not responsible because it sold the animals, Masramon said. Reuters has been unable to reach World Trade for comment.
A second ship, the ElBeik, also set sail from Spain in December with a cargo of nearly 1,800 cows. It is currently moored off the Turkish Cypriot port of Famagusta.
Nestled amid butterscotch-scented Ponderosa pines in Idaho’s backcountry one sunny, summer day in 1991, Suzanne Stone scooped her hands around her chin and let out an “Ahwooooo.” Stone, now an expert in wolf restoration heading the International Wildlife Coexistence Network, was then an intern at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). After she sent two boisterous wolf howls rippling through nearby meadows, she listened curiously for a reply. Instead, a bullet from a distant rifle whistled just above her and her supervisor’s heads. Steve Fritts, a leading wolf scientist at USFWS, hurried Stone back to their car before reporting what happened. Hunting was legal in the area, but firing at federal employees—even unknowingly—was not. Federal investigators later traced the shot to a hunting outfitter hundreds of yards away.
“I knew then what wolves were facing in the backcountry,” she says. For nearly three decades, wolf populations in Idaho have been on the rise, pitting local communities and powerful interest groups against each other, a situation that plays out in many areas across the country where wolves exist. Hunters contend that wolves have fully recovered and now deplete elk and deer populations while some ranchers argue wolves need to be killed to keep livestock alive. Conservationists, on the other hand, say that the apex predators contribute vitally to a healthy ecosystem and are still functionally extinct in about 85 percent of their historic range.
With gray wolves set to lose their federal protection when delisting takes effect in January, individual states have resorted to patching together their own terms for management, making it easier for people to hunt them in some states. But hunting will likely stunt wolf recovery and destabilize ecosystems already hobbled by their scarcity. Wolves regulate coyote populations, preventing the latter group from hunting pronghorn antelope; wolves pick off weak, rather than healthy, prey, leading to stronger deer and elk herds; and they keep wild herbivores from overgrazing, rippling benefits down to the soil. For these reasons, biologists have been trying to convince ranchers and policymakers that nonlethal methods, both old and new, should be used to reduce livestock conflicts and keep wolf populations stable or growing.
Wolves were nearly wiped out from the lower 48 by 1960, but numbers rebounded after Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and scientists reintroduced the predators to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in 1995. Hunting ramped up between 2008 and 2012 when the USFWS delisted gray wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, in part to protect livestock from attack. But that tactic may have been counterproductive. Research from the Carnivore Coexistence Lab at the University of Wisconsin Madison has shown that killing gray wolves actually leads to three times more livestock attacks, a finding supported by behavioral studies elsewhere. “The wolf pack is a family,” says Adrian Treves, who runs the lab. They cooperate to defend territory and raise pups. When one is killed, the destabilizing effect ripples through the pack. Reproductive age goes down, and naive juvenile attacks on livestock go up, according to Colleen St. Clair, a biologist at the University of Alberta.
Ranchers’ fears also run deeper than just slain cows. Even if livestock don’t die, wolves may chase or stress cattle enough that many lose weight, get trampled or injured. “I have major concerns about [wolves],” says Megan Brown, a cattle rancher in northern California who has encountered bears and wolves on her property. “I’ve noticed this happening slightly more now that the wolves are back.” (In 2011, California confirmed its first wild wolf sighting in 87 years.)
One newly proven tactic to discourage wolf-cattle conflicts is to keep an abundant population of the predators’ natural prey. Wolves prefer eating native wild animals, and depleted deer or elk populations nudge them toward abundant sheep and cattle. “Predators are always facing this cost benefit ratio,” St. Clair says. “When they choose to try to prey on livestock, it’s because they are in a situation where that’s their best option.” She suggests that planting deer or elk carcasses in wolf habitats or imposing stricter hunting limits could increase prey populations. Since doing so could also grow predator numbers, both approaches are contentious.
A tried-and-true change some ranchers have made is to keep their herds disease-free and haul dead livestock far from the rest. Wolves are exceptionally sensitive to weakened prey. “It’s like ringing the dinner bell and saying, ‘Come on in there’s a feast here’,” says Stone. Once the scent of a carcass lures them near a herd, healthy livestock become more vulnerable. Moving bone piles and carcasses far from the herd “may be the single best action” to prevent wolf predation on livestock from happening in the first place, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. This approach, while effective, adds costs to ranching and requires some to manage land differently than they have for generations.
It’s also not going to be a cure-all; ranchers can’t bury or haul thousand-pound carcasses from some remote pastures in the dead of winter, and healthy herds need protection too. Since wolves have evolved to be shy around unfamiliar things, a common strategy is to scare them away with devices called nonlethal deterrents. A centuries’ old example comes from Polish hunting practices: fladry is a perimeter of tightly spaced colorful flags. The configuration is not a physical barrier, but the narrow spacing between flags still throws wolves off. Hunters previously used fladry to funnel wolves into an ambush area, but scientists now champion the tool to spare them. In one instance, a biologist used fladry around a carcass visited by wolves. A hungry carnivore leapt over a nearby barbed wire fence “like it wasn’t even there,” but didn’t cross the fladry.
Since wolf reintroduction in 1995, scientists have gathered much evidence showing that random blasts of colorful light, noise or motion can also protect livestock enclosures by keeping wolves on edge. Stone recalls one wolf getting blasted with Van Halen. “It was one of our Wildlife Services guys’ favorite albums, and it was very hard rock,” she says. The frightened wolf fled further than any other in her experience. Ranchers also scare away wolves using strobe lights and starter pistols. Stone, who has used countless deterrents in her 30 years of experience, even reported success with inflatable tubemen—those giant grinning effigies that dance unpredictably, often around used car lots. She assembled a pair on an Oregon hobby farm in 2018 where wolves had eaten llamas, and wolves have still not returned, she says.
Nonlethal deterrent devices have limitations, though. Some require electricity and all only protect enclosed areas—two deal-breakers for herds grazing open pastures. Even in ideal scenarios, wolves eventually tease out empty threats. “Animals are incredibly smart,” says St. Clair. “Their lives depend on figuring out which of these dangers are real dangers.” Targeting multiple senses with a rotating library of deterrents staves off their pattern recognition, but habituation remains a major consideration.
Recent research suggests that tricking carnivores into thinking livestock is disgusting food, can condition, rather than scare them. The approach includes developing microcapsules with nauseating chemicals that ranchers would plant in carcasses as bait for curious carnivores. Making an animal vomit triggers an association with what they just ate, ironing a crease into a primitive subsection deep in the brain. So if a wolf eats a carcass laced with this flavorless capsule, it would start to steer clear of dead steer. This “conditioned disgust” aversion showed promising results in a 2009 study on captive wolves, but the method hasn’t been tested widely in wild wolves.
Recognizing animal cognition inevitably leads to appreciating individual differences between wolves. “We know that individuals vary in their ingenuity—their determination to get through our defenses, their tendency to repeat and cause multiple problems,” Treves says.
The environmental nonprofit Resolve and AI company CVEDIA recently announced WildEyes, a field camera that reportedly recognizes different individuals. “It’s a perfect example of how technology is catching up with the new paradigm of coexistence-type work,” says Stone. WildEyes can automatically alert ranchers of worrisome individuals in the area, or set off deterrents to scare the wolves away. The new technology has been tested on Tibetan wolves, but has not been used in the United States.
According to Stone, one rancher in Montana is testing a tool that monitors livestock heart rates to detect distress—a sort of Fitbit for ungulates. When the device senses stressed livestock, it alerts the rancher that a predator may be close. And other ranchers are also supercharging classic deterrents. Turbofladry combines fladry with electric fences, and works well for smaller enclosed herds.
While some ranchers try new methods, others have stuck with a couple of old standbys that scientists still encourage. Range riders, people paid to travel alongside free-grazing herds on horseback or ATV, can cover more area than electric fences usually surround. In addition to just supervising cattle, range riders encourage wolf-resistant behaviors: grazing as a dense cluster, keeping newborns with moms and moving injured cattle to safety. And guardian dogs, such as Great Pyrenees, can also travel with livestock beyond fence lines. A 2010 study from Central Michigan University proved their ability to dramatic reduce wolf activity, protecting sheep, goats and cattle. At several cattle farms randomly assigned guardian dogs, wolf visits dropped from about once per month to zero visits in three years. Brown says, however, that ranchers with many acres need many dogs—each costing thousands to feed and maintain.
“Every part of this is about having the right tool and using it the right way,” says Stone, pointing out that some ranches require multiple tactics at once. In 2017, Stone published findings from a seven-year case study comparing sheep killings in a lethally controlled area to one protected by range riders, turbofladry, guardian dogs and other nonlethal deterrents. The nonlethal controls led to 3.5 times fewer dead sheep—just .02 percent of the total population.
Switching from lethal to nonlethal measures widely, however, is tough without more buy-in from government and ranchers. More than half of ranchers surveyed in one study wanted to learn more about nonlethal techniques, but funding to foster that desire is lagging. Some states, such as Oregon, do provide grants to help cover costs for nonlethal controls though. When Colorado welcomes wolves back after passing a reintroduction bill in November, Stone hopes policymakers will learn from that evidence, and encourage the suite of nonlethal solutions for protecting livestock and wolves, rather than the lethal measures which endanger both.
For now, the best approach to deter gray wolves’ from attacking livestock is to combine multiple nonlethal methods, and encourage biologists and ranchers to keep innovating. “People often want a silver bullet: they buy this technique, they install it, it works forever,” says St. Clair. “It’ll never be like that. Animals will always be testing, especially animals as smart as wolves.”
Wild horse herd, Red Desert, BLM lands, Wyoming. Photo: Erik Molvar.
The Washington Post Magazine recently ran a misleading story on wild horses, focusing attention on anti-federalist ranchers in Nevada and the big money behind them. By failing to look beyond the superficial personality conflicts, and missing the real and important public lands issues, this article does its readers a disservice.
In the article, the writer characterizes the wild horse issue as an “emotional battle,” and correctly observes, “Many ranchers see the mustangs as an overpopulated invasive species that competes for the public land their livestock grazes.”
However, the reality is that wild horses are only bit players in a very real, West-wide ecological battle in which the livestock industry is the principle antagonist. Domestic cattle and sheep (not horses) are the most significant overpopulated invasive species, competing for the public land that our wildlife – elk, mule deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep – need to survive.
Pancake Herd, BLM lands, Nevada. Photo: Erik Molvar.
The scope of livestock destruction on western public land dwarfs the impact of wild horses. Wild horses are completely absent on almost 90% of western public lands, and on that small subset where they roam, free-ranging equids pose a measurable impact only in places where aggressive federal roundups aren’t already holding their populations at low levels. In the 1700s, there were an estimated two to seven million wild horses in North America, and native wildlife were abundant. Since the Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act of 1971, many herds have been entirely eliminated. Meanwhile, domestic livestock are found almost everywhere on federal public lands and are authorized to graze at densities that create long-term ecological destruction, with minimal oversight and management.
In fact, the livestock industry in the West plays a pivotal role in the two great environmental issues of our time: climate change and the biodiversity crisis. With their wholesale destruction of native grasses, cattle and domestic sheep today are converting native ecosystems to cheatgrass wastelands at a rate that hasn’t been seen since the Dust Bowl. Cheatgrass burns with unnatural frequency, eliminating sagebrush and other deep-rooted plants. An annual weed, it dies each year, surrendering its carbon and bankrupting the soil of its carbon stores. If left undisturbed, high deserts provide carbon sequestration that scientific studies have found to immobilize more carbon even than forests. Thus, the cattle grazing on western public lands are exacerbating the climate crisis. Public lands ranching also decimates native wildlife, degrading wildlife habitats and targeting native species from wolves to prairie dogs to beavers for elimination. The role of wild horses in all this has never been found to be anything other than negligible on either of these fronts.
The article also neglects to mention that Kevin Borba – one of the two livestock industry spokespeople featured in its story – is damaging the public lands where he runs his livestock. His Fish Creek Ranch grazing allotment covers almost 300,000 acres of leased public lands, lands that are failing the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) basic rangeland health standards. According to the BLM, the cause of the land health problem is cattle, not horses. Borba has a history of involvement with anti-public-land insurrections, including the 2014 “Grass March,” where anti-government ranchers drove across the country with horse trailers, ceremonially riding their horses through the towns along the way to protest federal management of livestock grazing on public lands.
Pancake Herd, BLM lands, Nevada. Photo: Erik Molvar.
Similarly, the article fails to identify the other livestock industry spokesman, David Duquette, as a supporter of the Hammonds, notorious ranchers and convicted arsonists who had set fire to Oregon’s public lands in order to create more grass for their cows. It was the Hammonds’ imprisonment that touched off the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2015 by Cliven Bundy’s sons and their ragtag gang of domestic terrorists. These spokespeople aren’t outliers, they are just some of the more prominent voices in a movement that seeks to give control of public lands and resources to profit-driven interest groups.
Wild horses can absolutely damage the vegetation, as can any large herbivore, but this is rarely the case. In Wyoming, for example, the BLM is currently in a planning process to zero out three major wild horse Herd Management Areas in the fabled Red Desert, an area currently home to 2,065 wild horses, according to BLM estimates. The agency’s own analysis shows that all of these Herd Management Areas are able to maintain a “thriving natural ecological balance” under current management, without the massive reductions or elimination of wild horses proposed in the proposed plan.
The Washington Post article glosses over a deep and complicated controversy over land management in northeastern Nevada, in which a Bureau of Land Management field manager was targeted for bullying, not just by the livestock industry but by his own State Director, for trying to address chronic violations of domestic livestock leases on federal lands. These types of violations have been repeated over and over again throughout the West, and are symptomatic of systematic (and too often officially authorized) overgrazing of public lands by cattle and sheep that are the real problem here. A more penetrating article on the subject – featuring the same cast of characters – was written several years ago by a more thorough and insightful journalist. It’s too bad that the Washington Post couldn’t offer its readers an article living up to this higher standard of journalism.
By parroting the fake-news hysteria of the livestock industry, the Washington Post has given a nationwide megaphone to half-baked myths about wild horses first voiced by William Perry Pendley, the illegitimate and now-discredited interim director of the Bureau. This narrative distracts public attention from the very real and major ecological problems posed by domestic livestock. In doing so, it helps the livestock industry escape accountability for business practices that have long been abusive and destructive to America’s public lands.
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.”