Point Reyes National Seashore; Some Elk Have Fatal Disease

The current issue of the Point Reyes Light has an article reporting that five of the 200 plus wild, free-roaming elk in the park have been found recently to have Johne’s Disease.  Here’s a link to the article:  http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/seashore-finds-elk-gut-disease

Johne’s (pronounced “Yo-nees”) is a bacterial disease that affects the small intestine of ruminants (cows, sheep, elk, deer etc). It is caused by Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis (“MAP”). It embeds itself in the wall of the lower part of the small intestine. As an immune response, the walls of the small intestine become thicker. This thickening prevents the absorption of nutrients.  As a result, the animal loses weight and dies. It is believed to have started in Europe and it is now a world-wide problem. Sixty-eight percent of dairy herds in the United States are infected with MAP.  MAP leaves or exits infected animals in feces and milk. It can survive outside a host animal for up to a year.  Even if the mother is not infected, her young can acquire it from her teats if they are contaminated with MAP-carrying manure from lying on the ground.  Once it is in a herd it is virtually impossible to remove.  It spreads easily from one ungulate species to another as from cattle to elk and vice versa.  This information was obtained from the following sites:  site1, site2.

That some elk tested positive was a big surprise because the park has been sending fecal samples to a lab for about 18 months to determine if there is Johne’s in the two wild, free-roaming Limantour and Drakes Beach herds.  Hundreds of samples have been examined and all the results have been negative. That is, until now.  According to the article, three elk from the Drakes Beach herd have tested positive via fecal samples.  Thirty fecal samples remain to be tested.  Furthermore, the park recently killed 20 elk to get tissue samples because tissue samples may be more conclusive than fecal samples.  Tissue from a single natural death was added to that.  Ten results are in for tissue samples and two of ten bulls from the Drakes Beach herd tested positive.  Eleven samples remain to be tested, according to the article.

Johne’s is very slow in its development.  It can take years before an animal may look like it might have it.  It is very difficult to test for and many results are false negatives.  As it progresses the first obvious signs are loss of weight and diarrhea.

Here is a photo of a Tomales Point elk that I took a few years ago.  The Tomales elk are not wild, free-roaming.  They are captive animals that live on the former Pierce Point Ranch on a peninsula at the extreme north end of the park.  I photographed this animal because its ribs were showing, it had severe diarrhea, and I thought it might have had Johne’s Disease.  The Tomales Point herd has had Johne’s since about the time the first elk were  released on Tomales Point.  They may have gotten it from the cattle that were there when the elk arrived.

A possible case of Johne's Disease

A possible case of Johne’s Disease

I wrote a blog about it at the time.  Here’s a link to the article:   https://jimcoda.wordpress.com/2012/12/15/whats-wrong-with-this-tule-elk-at-point-reyes-national-seashore/

The Point Reyes Light article raises some questions.

It’s too bad the park didn’t wait just a little longer before shooting the 14 Drakes Beach elk, given the fact that the latest fecal samples had three positive results.  Fourteen elk could have been spared.  In any event, was 14 out of 92 total animals (early 2015 figure) the appropriate number of elk to kill for samples of the Drakes Beach herd?  That’s 15%.   Maybe.  I don’t know.  According to the article, the first ten tissue samples were all bulls of the Drakes Beach herd.  I’m sure the ranchers were happy that 14 Drakes Beach elk were removed and especially happy that at least 10 were bulls because it’s been my experience that the bulls roam beyond the D Ranch more than the cows.  Were 10 (or possibly more) bulls an appropriate number out of about 20 bulls for sampling?  That’s roughly 50%.  Again, I don’t know, but it seems high.  Was six out of 120 total animals (early 2015 figure) the appropriate number of elk for the  Limantour herd?  That’s only 5%.  Again, I don’t know.  But since the Limantour herd is a bigger herd, wouldn’t it be logical that you would take more Limantour elk (or less Drakes Beach elk)?  Again, the take was not the 15% Drakes Beach take, but only 5%.

The park may have thought it made more sense to focus on the Drakes Beach herd.  It is the herd that is the main focus of a ranch management plan that will determine what to do with wild elk.  The ranchers want them out of their permit areas.  Cal Fish and Wildlife would be much less likely to agree to moving any of them to other elk areas in the State given that it is virtually impossible to guarantee that an individual animal hasn’t got Johne’s if its in a herd that is infected.  The park would seem to be left with the choices of shooting some or all which would be highly controversial and/or moving some or all to some other suitable place in the park (which may not exist).

According to the article (and my own research), dairy operations have a high (68%) incidence rate of Johne’s Disease nationwide whereas beef cattle have a relatively low incidence rate (8%).  Having animals close together seems to increase the spread of the disease and dairy cows spend much more time in close proximity than beef cattle.   A 1979 study of PRNS dairy herds found five out of ten (50%) were positive for Johne’s.  I have no information as to how rigorous the 1979 study was.   Given how hard it is to detect Johne’s, it could be that 50% was on the low side.   It may take several years for it to be obvious and dairy cows are slaughtered at a relatively young age.  I don’t believe there is any testing of dairy herds at Point Reyes nowadays.  There should be, especially the dairy herds that the elk share grazing land with.  Furthermore, dairies not only have a much higher incidence of Johne’s than beef ranches, but they require much more water than beef ranches and they cause more environmental impacts to natural resources, especially water resources.  While I find it difficult to understand how the park can justify beef ranching, given that its duty is to protect natural resources first, I don’t see how the park can possibly justify dairy ranching.  It has avoided addressing ranching in any form by continuing to ignore its duty to do a General Management Plan for the park.

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254 Elk Die of Thirst in Elk Range; Point Reyes National Seashore

Phot of Tule Elk Reserve

Tule Elk Reserve/North Unit, Phillip Burton Wilderness

The elk in the Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve (Pierce Point Ranch area) have been dying in large numbers due to lack of water or dehydration.  It’s a slow way to die.

The elk population dropped from 540 in 2012 to 357 in 2013.  That’s a loss of 183 animals or a 34% die-off.  Point Reyes Light, March 6, 2014.  Elk numbers declined from 357 to 286 in 2014.  That’s a loss of another 71 animals or an additional 20% die-off.  Point Reyes Light, March 19, 2015. That’s a total loss of 254 animals or 47% of the elk in two years in the Elk Reserve.  Almost half the population.  How many will die in 2015?

Meanwhile, the two smaller, wild free-roaming herds located at the south end of the park in the Central and South Units of the Phillip Burton Wilderness (120 elk) and in the “pastoral zone” (92 elk), which lies between the wilderness and the elk reserve, have increased in numbers despite the drought.  “The seashore attributes the success of the free-ranging herds to their ability to seek out forage and water at a time of drought.”  Id.  

The elk in the reserve are not free-ranging like the elk in the rest of the park.  They are held captive behind an 8-foot tall woven wire fence.  Thus, they can’t seek out water at a time of drought when there isn’t enough water inside the enclosure.  The most recent article above quotes park official, Dave Press, as saying:   “A lack of rainfall likely contributed to their ongoing struggles.”  The article goes on to say that “[s]tock ponds in the fenced area that dried up during the drought have been replenished by rains in the last few months, but the seashore is developing a plan to truck water to an easily accessible pond, if it runs dry again in the future.”

Photo of the elk containment fence at Tomales Point.

This 8-foot tall woven wire fence keeps elk from getting to water necessary for their survival.

What is the situation regarding water availability in the reserve?  Not good.  According to the 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan, the situation then was as follows:

There are no natural year-round streams [in the elk reserve] . . . From late spring to late autumn only spring-fed seeps would provide water for elk if it were not for the existence of eight water impoundments originally built for cattle . . . The water impoundments are a factor in determining the ability of the elk range to support its population.  While clearly an artificial construction, caution should be taken to ensure that any alteration of artificial water sources does not impact other species of special concern [red-legged frogs].  Otherwise, a return of the elk range to its native condition of seep-fed springs is considered desirable to maintaining viable populations.

Tule Elk Management Plan, 1998, page 12.

As the elk plan states, the eight stock ponds are a factor in determining the ability of elk to survive in this fenced enclosure.  And that’s in normal times.  But we are now in a very severe drought.  The ponds go dry each year.  Furthermore, is there any guarantee that all the spring-fed seeps are flowing in the driest months of drought years?  If a rancher had these lands he would have been doing all he could to make sure those ponds had water in them because he wouldn’t want any of his cows to die.

The park takes a different approach.  “Still, Mr. Press said, the park typically lets nature take its course.  ‘Policies for wildlife management that [NPS] operates under are to generally just allow for natural processes to play themselves out within the park.  When there are droughts, animals perish, and in good years, populations are abundant.'”  Point Reyes Light, March 19, 2015.

This is an acceptable approach under normal circumstances, but we don’t have a normal circumstance.  The park prevented nature from taking its course when it built the 8-foot tall woven wire fence that locked the elk up there long ago without any natural year-round water.  Once it did that it had a duty to see that these captive animals’ basic needs, including water, were met.  To do otherwise was inhumane and contrary to the Park Service’s duty in its Organic Act to conserve the wildlife in our national parks.   The elk reserve is no different than the ranches outside the enclosure with captive cattle that have to be cared for by making sure they have adequate food and water.  To the best of my knowledge, this is the only park in the entire national park system where wild animals are kept captive for public display.  These elk died (a) because the Park Service didn’t care for these captive animals like a rancher would by providing them with water needed to keep them alive and (b) because they are locked up and unable to roam free to survive according to their instincts and nature’s laws.

What about that “easily accessible pond” Mr. Press mentions?  Why  wasn’t water trucked to that pond in 2014 and 2013?  I can only assume it would have prevented some deaths.  If the park trucks water to it this year, will it prevent any deaths?  Again, I assume so, but the 1998 Elk Management Plan identifies four separate herds in the reserve and, while water in that pond may help the herd in whose home range it is located, can we assume the elk in the other three herds would know to leave their home ranges to look for it?  The park should keep all the ponds filled to keep all the elk alive.  To do anything else with these captive animals is inhumane and in violation of its duty to protect wildlife.

What about the last sentence in the elk plan quoted above to the effect that “a return of the elk range to its native condition of seep-fed springs is considered desirable to maintaining viable populations.”  Does that show a lack of concern for the elk by the drafters of the 1998 plan?  No, I don’t think so.  In the section covering Management Goals, the third goal is to “[p]rovide for a free-ranging tule elk herd in Point Reyes by 2005.”  Id. at 40.   (Emphasis added.)  Is the plan speaking about the elk that would be moved from the reserve to the wilderness under the first alternative in the 1998 Tule Elk Plan?  No.  It’s clear that the plan is talking about freeing the elk in the reserve:  “Their limitation to Tomales Point is an historical artifact of their reintroduction onto an area bounded by historic ranches . . . If they are to remain as part of the Seashore’s fauna and ecological processes, they should eventually become free-ranging throughout most of the Seashore’s natural zones . . .”  Id. at 40-41.  Thus, the plan contemplated that the fence at Tomales Point would be removed by 2005.  If it had been removed, it’s reasonable to assume that some of the elk in the enclosure would have left and found other places that provided them with their necessary food and water requirements.  Why wasn’t the fence removed by 2005?  The fence should be removed now before any more elk die.

Do you think that the remaining elk should be saved? Do you think that the 8-foot fence should be removed and that the elk should be set free and that the Park Service should keep all eight ponds filled until the fence is removed?  If so, send a letter to that effect to Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior, 1849 C Street, N.W., Washington D.C. 20240.  She should be apprised of how the National Park Service is letting hundreds of tule elk die in Point Reyes National Seashore by keeping them locked up without adequate water and unable to travel to available water on park lands outside the enclosure.  A copy of your letter should also be sent to Cicely Muldoon, Superintendent, Point Reyes National Seashore, 1 Bear Valley Road, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956.

While you’re at it, our Senators and Congressman should know about this.  Please send copies of your letters to:  The Honorable Dianne Feinstein, United States Senate, 331 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510; The Honorable Barbara Boxer, United States Senate, 112 Hart Senate Office Building; Washington, D.C. 20510-0505; and The Honorable Jared Huffman, Unites States House of Representatives, 1630 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515-0502.

The elk thank you.

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Bull Elk with Barbed Wire in Antlers, Point Reyes National Seashore

This is a photo of a bull tule elk with barbed wire caught in his hantlers.

Tule Elk with Barbed Wire Caught in Antlers

Here’s a photo of a bull tule elk I took recently at Point Reyes.  He has some barbed wire tangled in and hanging from his antlers.   I don’t know how this happened, but it’s most likely because the wire was left on the ground.  Bull elk joust with bushes and other vegetation and if some careless rancher leaves unwanted wire on the ground some of it winds up in elk and deer antlers.   It isn’t likely to fall out of the antlers on its own, but it is likely to injure or kill the animal like it did the bull elk below that died at Point Reyes some time ago.

Photo of bull elk with barbed wire holding its jaw shut.

The barbed wire around nose and chin held mouth shut.

As I’ve said before, the fencing situation at Point Reyes is terrible.  It’s not wildlife-friendly, that is, it’s difficult and dangerous for wildlife to get past it.  It’s poorly maintained.  When I wrote the post on fencing I found broken fences with hanging wires in many places.  Something needs to be done because the current situation is killing the wildlife of the park.

Maybe fencing should be taken out of the hands of the ranchers.  The Park Service could contract with one or more fence companies who would build and maintain the fencing to wildlife-friendly standards and the Park Service would bill the ranchers for the cost.

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Point Reyes National Seashore; Fencing is Too High and Harming Wildlife

The photo below shows a bull elk failing to clear a barbed wire fence at Point Reyes.  The fence is on the west side of the Drakes Beach Road shortly after turning onto the road.  My friend Daniel Dietrich took this photo, and the two others  below, at sunrise a couple of days ago.  The bull’s left rear leg has been snagged by the upper wire and possibly the second wire.  Without a photo from the other side it’s not possible to tell if its right rear leg is snagged.

Photo of elk caught in too-tall fence.

Elk Caught in Too-tall Fence

Two months ago I wrote about the fact that the fencing at Point Reyes National Seashore is dangerous to wildlife.  In the article I discussed the fencing guidelines that the fish and wildlife departments of several western states recommend to private property landowners who have elk and other game animals on their land.  They recommend that fences be no higher than 40 inches (or 42″ at the very most) and that there be at least 12 (preferably 14) inches clearance between the top two wires.  I also discussed the fencing standards used by BLM for cattle and sheep grazing on the Nation’s public lands.  BLM’s height standard is only 38 inches, probably because, unlike the state fish and wildlife agencies, BLM owns the land and is therefore free to impose the height standard it feels is best for wildlife.  Like the state wildlife agencies, BLM requires that there be 12 inches clearance between the two top wires.   I measured 20 fences at the Seashore for that article, including this fence line, and none met the fish and wildlife guidelines and/or BLM standards.  The park has fence standards for its own fencing.  Incredibly, their fence standards require that fences be 48 inches tall and that there be only 9 inches clearance between the top two wires.  For these reasons, and others discussed in my blog two months ago, the park’s standards are about as unfriendly to wildlife as you can get.  I find this hard to understand given that the Park Service’s primary statutory duty is to preserve and protect the natural resources of the parks, including the wildlife.  Click here to read that article.

Photo of elk falling.

Bull elk drops to elbows after snagging too-tall fence.

Snagging the wire(s) has caused the bull to fall on his elbows.  I don’t know if he suffered injuries to his front or rear legs.  Barbs can inflict a lot of damage.  I have heard reports of other elk in the area with injuries to their hind legs.  What usually happens when a deer or elk can’t clear the top wire is that its hind legs get caught between the top wire and the second wire and the animal is trapped and held by the two wires.  This is called “scissoring.”  In this case the fence post was weak (probably rotten) and broke.  For a photo of a deer which has become scissored, click the link above.

Photo of elk clearing fence.

The following bull clears the fence.

Here is a photo of a following bull that cleared the top wire.  Note the fence post that appears to have broken at about ground level.

The Park Service should do something about the fencing and do it before more animals are injured or die.  Until it does, it seems to me it is ignoring its Organic Act and the Point Reyes National Seashore statute which require it to preserve and protect wildlife.  The fencing it builds and the fencing its ranchers build are not preserving and protecting wildlife; they are harming wildlife.

 

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Point Reyes. Should Elk Be Fenced In? Executive Summary

[That last post about elk fencing was pretty long.   Here’s a much shorter version that I’ll call an “Executive Summary.”  The next two paragraphs are basically the same as the original, but after that, the following 6 paragraphs replace over 50 paragraphs in the original post.] 

As if we didn’t already have enough signs in west Marin about oyster farming in the Seashore, there are new signs popping up about elk and putting them behind a fence.  The new signs say:  “Let’s protect / both elk and cow / time to build / elk fences now.”

Photo of a row of signs favoring fencing elk.

“Elk Fences Now”

What’s it all about?  In a nutshell, there are some ranchers and dairy farmers in the Point Reyes National Seashore who use park land for ranching and dairying under leases and permits from the Park Service.  They and/or their employees live on those lands.  Tule elk also exist on some of those park lands.  Some or all of the ranchers want the Park Service to get them off those lands because the elk eat grass, as part of their diet, and they drink water.  The ranchers claim to own all the grass and water.  Their solution is for the Park Service to build a fence in the park’s wilderness area and put the elk behind the fence. I should add that the Park Service has initiated a planning process to develop a new ranch management plan for the Seashore and elk will be addressed in the plan. In that sense, the signs are timely and the ranchers are lobbying the public for their fencing idea. But the signs raise some serious questions. Would a fence work?  Would it be a good idea?  Are there legal issues?  Policy issues?

First of all, a barbed wire fence won’t work.  You would have to build a woven wire fence 8 feet tall.  See photo.  This kind of fence is designed to keep wildlife from getting out or in.  It’s also referred to as an enclosure fence or an exclosure fence depending on whether the  intent is to keep wildlife in or out.  Regardless of intent, it prevents all animals from traveling in either direction.

Photo of the elk containment fence at Tomales Point.

Enclosure Fence

Would it work?  There are two ways to try to fence the elk (and the other wildlife).  You could build a boundary fence between the wilderness and the ranching area or you could build an enclosure fence in or around the wilderness.  A boundary fence wouldn’t work because the elk could just walk around either end of it.  An enclosure fence might work, but it would have other problems as discussed below.

Would an enclosure fence be a good idea?    No, for several reasons.  Point Reyes is a national park. The wildlife in a national park should not be locked up.  Parks are the antithesis of zoos.  No other national park has locked up any wildlife that I know of.  It would also be harmful to the wildlife.  The fence would divide the home range or territory of many wild animals. That would cause conflict, death and reduced carrying capacities.  The fence would also have a very negative effect on the visitor experience and the aesthetics of the park, especially where any fence crossed a beach or hiking trail or ran parallel to a beach, hiking trail or road.  The enclosure would also be very expensive to build and maintain.  If the entire central and southeast wilderness units were enclosed in a large fence, the fence would be roughly 38 miles long if built on a straight line.  Given elevation changes, the need to go around areas rather than through them due to rocky ground and heavy vegetation, and the very irregular boundary line of the wilderness, the length of the fence would be much more than any straight-line estimation.  50% longer would be as good a guess as any.  There would also be a need to acquire easements to the extent the fence had to cross private lands, such as the Vedanta Society’s Retreat Site near Olema.  The cost should be borne by the ranchers since they are the only ones to benefit from the fence.

Are there any legal issues standing in the way of the elk enclosure?  Yes, I think so.  The Park Service’s Organic Act states that the Park Service must “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life [sic] therein ….” 16 U.S.C. Section 1. An 8-foot tall woven wire fence designed to limit the movement of wildlife doesn’t conserve the scenery or the wildlife. It hurts both. The Point Reyes statute states that the Secretary shall administer the property “without impairment of its natural values.” 16 U.S.C. § 459c-6. Wildlife is clearly one of its natural values. The enclosure fence would clearly impair necessary wildlife movement. That’s the very purpose of it – to lock the wildlife up much like livestock or animals in a zoo.  The Wilderness Act is another problem.  An 8-foot tall woven wire fence, with all the wildlife therein locked up inside it, and the wildlife outside it unable to move through it, would conflict with the very definition of wilderness in the Act.  Among other things, the area would no longer be “without permanent improvements” or “managed so as to preserve its natural conditions”  or “with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”   16 U.S.C. § 1131(c).

Are there any policy issues regarding this fencing idea?  Yes.  The Park Service has a formal national policy to the effect that it will not maintain captive herds of wildlife for the enjoyment of the public, but that it instead maintains wild populations within natural habitats. This policy is referenced in the 1998 Elk Management Plan, page 54, and would seem to prohibit the construction of any enclosure fence. Consistent with the policy, the Park Service stated, in describing the alternative which was chosen in the 1998 Elk Management Plan, that “[t]he Seashore will not attempt to establish new herds that require permanently fenced, restricted ranges.” Id., at 46. I would add here that building the fence would likely violate the Park Service Organic Act, the Point Reyes legislation and the Wilderness Act; all good reasons to have formulated the policy.

In summary, I think this fencing idea is prohibited by law and Park Service policy.  Plus, it would be very harmful to wildlife (the reason for the policy), negatively impact visitor experiences, and be very costly.  If built, it should be paid for by the ranchers because they are the only ones who want to lock up the elk (and other wildlife).   Assuming the fence would run for about 57 miles (my guesstimate) and given the lack of roads and the prohibitions in the Wilderness Act regarding roads (temporary or permanent) and use of mechanized equipment, I think the fence would cost in excess of a million dollars.  It could be much more.  It’s also unlikely anyone would bid on the job if the Wilderness Act requires it to be built with hand labor only.  If you’re interested in more detail, read my previous blog.

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Point Reyes National Seashore. Should Wild Elk Be Fenced In on National Park Lands?

I.  INTRODUCTION

As if we didn’t already have enough signs in west Marin about oyster farming in the Seashore, there are new signs popping up about elk and putting them behind a fence.  The new signs say:  “Let’s protect / both elk and cow / time to build / elk fences now.”

Photo of a row of signs favoring fencing elk.

“Elk Fences Now”

What’s it all about?  In a nutshell, there are some ranchers and dairy farmers (hereafter, “ranchers”) in the Point Reyes National Seashore who use park land for ranching and dairying under leases and permits (hereafter “authorizations”) from the Park Service.  Tule elk also exist on some of those park lands.  Some or all of the ranchers want the Park Service get them off those lands because elk eat grass, as part of their diet, and they drink water.  The ranchers believe they own all the grass and water.  Their solution is for the Park Service to build a fence in the park’s wilderness area and put the elk behind the fence.  I should add that the Park Service has initiated a planning process to develop a new ranch management plan for the Seashore and elk will be addressed in the plan.  In that sense, the signs are timely and the ranchers are lobbying the public for the fencing idea.  But the signs raise some serious questions.  Would a fence work?  Would it be a good idea?  Are there legal issues?  Policy issues?

II. BACKGROUND

To assess the merits of fencing, some background information is helpful as to the ranching area, the wilderness and the elk.  Once those items are covered we can better assess the fencing idea.

A.  The Ranching Area

The park itself is about 71,000 acres in size.  The area where the ranching occurs is about 18,000 acres, or, about 25% of the park.  It’s referred to as the “pastoral zone.”  When the Park Service bought the ranches a long time ago the ranchers were given the option of reserving a right of “use and occupancy” to continue ranching for a number of years.  The purchase price was reduced to reflect the value of the term reserved.  Those reservations have run out and the ranchers now occupy the ranches under authorizations from the Park Service.  Under the park’s statute, ranching is only allowable where “appropriate” and it’s “discretionary” with the Park Service.  A rancher’s rights begin and end with the authorizations they receive from the Park Service.  Resource protection, including wildlife, is the Park Service’s highest priority under its Organic Act and the park’s authorizing statute.  When the ranch management plan is completed and the Park Service deals with the expiration of authorizations, it will have to determine how much forage there is, determine how much of it can be consumed (you have to leave some), and, finally, determine how much to allocate to wildlife for food (and cover) and how much is then available for livestock.

B.  The Wilderness

As stated above, the park is about 71,000 acres and the pastoral zone is 18,000 acres.  The wilderness is about 27,315 acres in size, including the most recent addition.  It is named the Phillip Burton Wilderness in honor of Congressman Phil Burton, deceased, for all he did for national parks.  It consists of three units.

The north unit is the 2,600 acre Tule Elk Reserve at the north end of the Tomales Peninsula.  The unit includes a 1/4 mile strip of tide and submerged lands on the ocean side of the peninsula.  My descriptions and discussions of the three units are based on the park’s “Point Reyes” map/brochure given to visitors.

The central unit, according to the park’s wilderness legislation, is bounded by Limantour Road on its south side at the easterly half of the road and then it runs roughly parallel to the road, but somewhat away from it (because of past development), until it reaches a point  1/4 mile beyond the high tide line at the beach.  At its north end it begins near the intersection of Mount Vision road and Sir Francis Drake Blvd. and runs south along the east shore of Estero de Limantour until it ends at a point (again as I understand it) 1/4 mile beyond the high tide line at the beach.  It protects the crest of Limantour Ridge, the east shore of the Estero de Limantour and the Limantour Spit.  I don’t have an acreage figure for it.

The southeast unit is the largest.  It is separated from the central unit by Limantour Road and some non-wilderness lands on either side of a section of the road.  That unit protects the Inverness Ridge down to a long coastline out to a line 1/4 mile off the beach from the high tide line.  In it are forests, coastal foothills, beaches and several small inland lakes as well as Mt. Wittenberg.  I don’t have an acreage figure for it either.

While I don’t have an acreage figure for the central or southeast units, we know the entire wilderness is 27,315 acres and we know the north unit is 2,600 acres.  So, I assume the other two units are about 24,715 acres.  Looking at the Point Reyes visitor’s map, it looks like the central unit is about 1/3 the size of the southeast unit.  It would be nice to be able to say at this point that the central unit is 1/4 of the 25,715 acres and the southeast unit is 3/4 of the 24,715 acres, but I can’t. The reason is that, according to the Point Reyes map,  Drakes Estero and Estero de Limantour are part of the wilderness as well.  I called the park to see if I could get some information on how the water areas fit into the statutory description of the two units, but didn’t get a call back.  If I ever find out how those water areas relate to the statutory descriptions of the central and southeast wilderness units, I’ll update this blog.

C.  The Elk

It’s been estimated that there were about 500,000 tule elk in California around 1850.  The last report of one in the Point Reyes area was in 1860 when one was seen swimming across Tomales Bay.  By 1870 it looked like the tule elk herds had been wiped out by early settlers, market hunters and ranchers.  Then a rancher, Henry Miller, found a few on his land and, rather than shoot them like all the previous ranchers, he worked to bring the herd back from near extinction.  Over the years, others joined in the effort to save them.  In 1976 Congress joined in the effort by passing a Joint Resolution providing that certain federal lands in California, including Point Reyes National Seashore, should be made available as new locations for the tule elk.  Public law 94-389 (Aug 14, 1976).  The State of California obliged by delivering some tule elk to Point Reyes a couple of years later.  They were released at the north end of the Tomales Peninsula after the Park Service built an enclosure fence across the peninsula which ran from the ocean to Tomales Bay.  The fence is a woven wire fence 8 feet high, including the smooth top wire.   The area is called the Tule Elk Reserve.   It is 2,600 acres in size and contains not only elk, but also blacktail deer and many of the other animal species that exist in the park, such as badgers, bobcats, coyotes and gray foxes.  Here is a photo of the fence.

Photo of the elk containment fence at Tomales Point.

Elk Enclosure Fence

The fence has, for the most part, prevented any elk (and most other animals) from getting outside the fenced area.  On the ocean side the fence ends at a cliff.  The bay side has some pretty steep areas and sections where the vegetation looks impenetrable.  Nevertheless, some elk, almost exclusively bulls, have gotten out in the past and they continue to do so.  The fence sometimes breaks and that may provide escape opportunities.  However, they don’t have to follow the fence to get out. They may just get down to water level anywhere in the Reserve where the elevation changes are not severe and walk/swim their way out of the Reserve.  From what I’ve observed, they tend to stay at the north end of the J Ranch.  I have never heard of the J Ranch complaining about them.  To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time a national park has ever locked up wildlife inside an enclosure fence, and in a wilderness no less.

The elk population in the reserve increased over the years and in 1998, pursuant to a just-completed Elk Management Plan, the Park Service captured some elk in the 2,600 acre Tule Elk Reserve and released them in the northwest portion of the southeast unit of the Phillip Burton Wilderness.

While most elk stayed in the wilderness, some moved west into the central unit and some of them went through the central unit until they exited the wilderness.  Today, some of them (to the extent any are still alive) and their descendents live primarily on the defunct D Ranch which is now grazed by the C and E Ranches and those elk are seen often on the east and west sides of Drakes Beach Road which bisects the D Ranch.  They also spend some time on the adjacent C and E Ranches and may go even beyond the C Ranch to the B Ranch or even the A Ranch which is the westernmost of all the ranches.  Others (mainly, if not exclusively, bulls) spend time on the Home Ranch, which is adjacent to the central unit of the wilderness lands.  Many remain in the wilderness.  And, as mentioned earlier, some elk exist at times on the J Ranch, which is adjacent to the Tule Elk Reserve.

All the tule elk today started from those last few elk on Henry Millers’s land.  Because there were only a few tule elk remaining, they have genetic issues.  Those at Point Reyes are the worst.  According to the park’s 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan, “[t]he population of tule elk at Point Reyes has been estimated to contain the lowest level of genetic variation … of all the herds in the state.”  p. 39.  The plan also states that experts have recommended the regular import of female tule elk from other locations to help reduce founder effects and the loss of genetic diversity that occurs in isolated herds.  Id.  I don’t know if this has been done.

III.  Discussion Regarding Fencing the Elk (and Other Wildlife)

Before discussing where to put the fence, we need to first determine what kind of fence to use.  I think the only type of fence that would contain elk would be a woven wire fence at least 8 feet high like the one used at the Tule Elk Reserve.  See photo above.

Conceptually, I can think of only two ways to try to fence the elk so they no longer go onto the pastoral lands.  The first option would be to build a boundary fence between the wilderness and the ranches as was done to separate the elk reserve from the J Ranch and the rest of the park.  The second option would be to build an enclosure fence in or around all or part of the central and/or southeast units of the wilderness.

A.  A Boundary Fence

Looking at the Point Reyes visitor’s map, there seem to be two basic routes for a boundary fence.

1.  The Northern Route

The first route, which I’ll call the northern route, would separate the pastoral zone from the central unit of the wilderness, thereby giving the elk access to all of the central and southeast wilderness units.  The northern tip of the central unit ends near Mount Vision Road and not far from where it intersects with Sir Francis Drake Blvd.  The northern end of the fence could begin at Mount Vision Road near or at that intersection.  It would follow a southerly route outside the wilderness boundary and terminate at the northernmost shore of Estero de Limantour.  Because the line separating the wilderness from the Home Ranch is an “S” curve, a decision would have to be made as to whether to follow the S curve or build the fence on a straight line.  It would be simpler and cheaper to build the fence in as straight a line as possible.  However, this would bisect the Home Ranch to some degree.  I should add here that I’m going to assume for this wilderness discussion that the Park Service would not run the fence through any part of the wilderness because the Wilderness Act may preclude it.  Based upon the Point Reyes visitors’ map and mileage scale, this route seems to be about 3.3 miles long as the crow flies.  If the S curve were followed the length would probably be closer to 4 miles.

2.  The Southern Route

The other route, which I’ll call the southern route, would run along the basic alignment of Limantour Road starting at the ocean and following the road all the way to Bear Valley Road.  Another southern route option would be to begin, again, at the ocean and run along the road until you get to the Bayview Trailhead and then take the shortest and/or easiest route straight to Sir Francis Drake Blvd.   The length of the southern route with its two options would be roughly 6.5 miles and 4.5 miles respectively.

Changes in elevation and deviations around impassable terrain where not following Limantour Road may increase the length of the fence substantially.

i.  Wildlife Impacts

The first obvious difference between the northern and southern routes is that with the southern route you exclude the elk from a large portion of the wilderness.  Otherwise, the wildlife impacts would seem to be basically the same.  However, regardless of which option is chosen, the boundary fence would cause wildlife problems to the extent it cuts some animals off from parts of their normal home ranges or territories.  That would force an unknown number of wild animals to establish new home ranges.  This may cause some conflicts and possible mortality, at least in the short term, and, possibly, reduced carrying capacities.

ii.  Visitor Experience/Aesthetics

It would not be very aesthetic to have an 8 foot woven wire fence running along the landscape, either running from Mount Vision Road near where it intersects with Sir Francis Drake Blvd. and then south to the northern end of Estero de Limantour, or from the ocean and then along Limantour Road until it ends at Bear Valley Road or Sir Francis Drake Blvd.  Photo opportunities would be reduced or even precluded, especially at the beach.  Gates would have to be installed where appropriate.  If a gate isn’t located within a reasonable distance from where a person wanted to travel, that person may attempt to climb the fence and possibly get injured.

iii.  Cost

I don’t know the cost, but it would be much, much more per mile than a barbed wire fence.  As between the two options, the cost of the first option would probably be higher than the second option because there is no road associated with the first option.  Running the fence from Bayview Trailhead to Sir Francis Drake Blvd. would increase the cost of the southern route because there is no road for that route.  One question that arises here is who should pay the cost of the fence.  Since the fence is something only the ranchers want, I think most people would say the ranchers should pay for it.

iv.  Ranching Impacts

The first route option might bisect the Home Ranch to some degree.  If some or all of the ranchers have to pay for the fence that would be an additional impact.

v.  Other Considerations

The most important one is that the boundary fence wouldn’t work.  It would prevent many wildlife species from moving in their normal, needed ways, but it wouldn’t stop elk from going around it.  Unlike the fence at the Elk Reserve, neither boundary fence would have the benefit of cliffs or very steep terrain.  The northern route wouldn’t even extend far enough south to have any effect on the southern 25% of the central wilderness unit.  The southern route would just require the elk to walk/swim around the fence at the ocean.  They’d then walk Limantour Spit and then walk/swim across Drakes Estero or Limantour Estero to the Home Ranch and D Ranch.  Those imprinted on those areas would go right away.  They could also go around the northern ends of the fences.  Another consideration is whether construction of a fence along a wilderness boundary designed to interfere with wildlife movement would run afoul of any laws or policies concerning the management of wildlife or wilderness areas.

vi.  Summary

It would prevent many wildlife species from moving in their normal, needed ways, but it wouldn’t stop elk from going around it.  Thus, it would be the worst of all worlds in terms of expense, harm to wildlife and results.

B.  An Enclosure Fence

The other option would be to build an enclosure fence around the central wilderness unit, the southeast wilderness unit, or both units.

As I look at these two units of the wilderness I realize I’m going to have to get into a discussion of the Wilderness Act because there is no way to build a fence without putting it on wilderness land on the Drakes Bay and Estero de Limantour sides of the central unit and the bay/ocean side of the southeast unit.  I could discuss it here, but I think I’ll do it at the end so I can keep the boundary fence and enclosure fence discussions together.

1.  An Enclosure Fence Around the Central Unit of the Wilderness

I gave mileage figures for the boundary fence idea and I’ll try to do the same here, but it’s more difficult because the shape of the central unit is so irregular.   Using a ruler and the mileage scale at the bottom of the Point Reyes map I come up with about 14 miles of fencing to encircle that unit.  This is a rough figure.

2.  An Enclosure Fence Around the Southeast Unit of the Wilderness

The second option here would be to fence the southeast unit.  Given its irregular shape this is difficult to do.  Using a ruler and the mileage scale on the map I get about 26 miles of fencing.  Again, this is a rough figure.

3.  An Enclosure Fence Around Both Units of Wilderness

The last option would be to fence both units as one fenced area.  Again, this is an irregular shape.  Using the ruler and map I get about 38 miles of fencing.  As before, this is a rough figure.

All three of these mileage figures assume straight-line fence construction.  In reality, if the fence were built it would be much longer due to topography, wilderness boundary lines and private property adjacent to the wilderness which may require acquiring easement rights across private property.       

i.  Wildlife Impacts from All the Enclosure Fence Options

The impact on wildlife would be enormous under any of the above three  scenarios.  No elk, deer, coyote, fox, badger or bobcat could get through it.  The fenced area would essentially become a zoo or prison.  To the extent the fencing bisected an animal’s living space or territory, it would need to seek out and defend new territory.  For example, let’s assume the fence bisects a male bobcat’s territory.  Let’s further assume when the fence gets built the bobcat is left outside.  He is in an area that won’t adequately support him.  So, by necessity, he ventures into the territory of a neighboring male bobcat.  A fight follows and one is injured or killed or is forced to move on to find a territory that the loser can take over and defend against other males.  This is one of the things that happens when a predator finds itself in the territory of another of the same species.  The need to travel to find territory to possess and defend is a reason mountain lions keep traveling until they wind up in people’s yards.  The enclosure fence would also prevent the travel of wildlife living outside the enclosure.  Many would never go around it, especially if they hit the long side of the fenced areas.   Inside the fence, inbreeding might occur to some extent.  The fenced-in area could become an “island” from a genetic point of view.  Since wild animal numbers depend on habitat, animal numbers would seem likely to decline to the extent the fencing divided home ranges and reduced the carrying capacity of the lands along the fence lines.

Another problem with the fence idea is Park Service policy.  The Park Service has a policy to the effect that it will not maintain captive herds of wildlife for the enjoyment of the public, but that it instead maintains wild populations within natural habitats.  This policy is referenced in the 1998 Elk Management Plan at 54.  This policy would seem to prohibit the construction of any enclosure fence.  Consistent with the policy, the Park Service stated, in describing the alternative which was chosen in the 1998 Elk Management Plan, that “[t]he Seashore will not attempt to establish new herds that require permanently fenced, restricted ranges.”  Id., at 46.  I would add here that building the fence would likely violate the Park Service Organic Act and the Point Reyes legislation.

About the only plus I can see from any enclosure fence would be that it would offer the opportunity of introducing a natural predator of elk, such as the black bear.  In Yellowstone, bears (black and grizzly) kill 50% of the elk calf crop each year before they reach one year of age.

ii.  Visitor Experience/Aesthetics from All Enclosure Fence Options

To hike the beach or the wilderness trails and have to look at 8 foot tall woven wire fences and to have to go through 8 foot tall gates would lessen, if not destroy, the wilderness experience.   The fences would be impossible to avoid in some areas that provide photographic opportunities.  People may also be tempted to climb a fence rather than hike to the nearest gate which might involve some injuries.

iii.  Cost of All the Enclosure Fence Options

I have no idea what fencing the wilderness in would cost, but it would be much more expensive than the boundary fence idea.  Again, the big question is who should pay for it. Given that the ranchers are the beneficiaries, I think most people would think they ought to pay for it.

iv.  Ranching Impacts from All Enclosure Fence Options

I can’t think of any adverse impacts to ranching in fencing the wilderness except to the extent some or all of the ranchers would be responsible for the cost of the fence.

v.  Other Considerations

Another consideration is whether the Wilderness Act or any other law would prevent the construction of the enclosure fence.  More on that below.

vi.  Summary

The impact to wildlife would be tremendous.  All wildlife mammals over the size of a weasel would become prisoners.  The wilderness would become a zoo for all practical purposes.  Park Service policy seems to prohibit enclosure fencing for wildlife.  The visitor experience for hiking, photography etc. in a wilderness would be significantly affected.   The cost, especially for the southwest unit or a combination of the two units would be very high and I think most park visitors would say it should be borne by the ranchers because they are the only ones who want it or would benefit by it.  

IV.  THE WILDERNESS ACT

As I stated earlier, I need to address the Wilderness Act, at least on a basic level.  The Wilderness Act provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

(c) “Wilderness” defined

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.  An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this chapter an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which

(1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable;

(2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation

****

16 U.S.C. § 1131 (c) (Emphasis added.)

(c)  Prohibited provisions …

… [T]here shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area … and … no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats … no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

16 U.S.C. § 1133 (Emphasis added.)

Okay, let’s picture a fence built around the central unit, the southeast unit, or both, where the fence is outside the wilderness except where the unit or units front on Drakes Bay, Drakes Estero and/or Estero de Limantour.  Along any shore the fence has to be built on wilderness lands.   How does that square with the definition of a wilderness?

Would the coastal side of the wilderness with an 8 foot woven wire fence still be an area where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man”?  I read “untrammeled” as meaning unaffected or showing no signs of man’s work or “footprint.”   I don’t think it would continue to meet the definition.  The fence affects the earth by its very presence.  It affects the “community of life” because it significantly affects the wildlife enclosed in the fence and the wildlife outside the fence, both of which are constrained by the fence.

What about the phrase “undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence”?  If you build an 8 foot woven wire fence would the land still be considered as undeveloped and would it still retain its primeval character?  I don’t think so.  “Primeval” means ancient or primitive.  If you build an 8 foot woven wire fence on wilderness land it is not retaining its ancient or primitive character; it’s losing it.

What about the phrase “without permanent improvements”?  I think of a fence, especially one that is 8 feet tall and made of woven wire and 4×4 inch posts that are 12 feet long and stick out of the ground for 8 feet, as a permanent improvement.

What about the phrase “managed so as to preserve its natural conditions”?   Would constructing an 8 foot woven wire fence designed to lock up elk and other wildlife be an act of management to preserve its natural conditions?  I don’t think so.  It would be just the opposite.

What about subparagraph (1) which says the area generally appears to have been “affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable”?  I think the fence would be in conflict with both of those clauses.  How can an 8 foot woven wire fence be unnoticeable?  Subparagraph (2) is also a problem.  Having an 8 foot woven wire fence is not consistent with “a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”  A fence seems to be the antithesis of the phrase “unconfined recreation.”

The Act also has specific prohibitions which make it virtually impossible to build the fence, at least along the water side.  Temporary roads are prohibited in wilderness.  Motor vehicles are prohibited.  Motorized equipment, like a post hole auger, is prohibited.    “[N]o other form of mechanical transport is allowed.”  Finally, no structure or installation is allowed.  The only way you could transport the posts and woven wire would be on the backs of men and/or horses.  The post holes would have to be dug by hand.  Is there a fence company with the manpower and horses to even bid on this?  I don’t think so.

There’s another way to look at this.  Rather than just looking at the effects of the line of fence on wilderness land, what we really have is a large holding area, with elk and other wildlife inside, that encompasses one or more of the wilderness units plus some land outside the wilderness.  Run that mental picture by all the words and phrases that define a wilderness.  Plus, the whole fenced area is really  a large “structure or installation” for the containment of wildlife.  Structures and installations are prohibited.  While three sides are outside the wilderness, one side is inside, and all sides, together with the locked up wildlife, affect the wilderness.

What about not fencing the water side?  In that case the enclosure fence becomes a big border fence.  Elk would just go around it.  It would be a big waste of time and money.  Plus, I think it still fails the definition of wilderness.  It would no longer be an area “where the earth and its community of life” would be untrammeled or unaffected by man.  The elk and other wildlife would still be fenced in on three sides and that community of life would be affected by man.  It wouldn’t be “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence” any longer because it would be a man-made animal prison.  And, at that point, it wouldn’t be “managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”   It would be managed so as to be a zoo.  A zoo is not a natural condition.    Furthermore, it wouldn’t meet subparagraph 1.   Would a wilderness area, encircled by a fence with the wildlife locked up inside the fence and standing on wilderness land, be one “affected primarily by the forces of nature, with man’s work substantially unnoticeable”?  No.  It would be a man-made containment area regardless of where the fence is located.

In summary, I think the Wilderness Act alone kills this whole fence idea.  The Park Service needs to determine for itself if  the Wilderness Act precludes building any fencing in the wilderness or any fencing here that affects the wilderness.  It may have done so already.  If not, it should do so soon because it would be a waste of time to consider fencing the wilderness as a proposal or alternative in the ranch management planning process if it isn’t a legal option.  Do other Park Service laws come into play here?  I think so.

V.  THE ORGANIC ACT AND SEASHORE ACT

The Park Service’s Organic Act states that the Park Service must “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life [sic] therein ….” 16 U.S.C. Section 1.  Such a fence doesn’t conserve the scenery or the wildlife.  It hurts both.  The Point Reyes statute states that the Secretary shall administer the property “without impairment of its natural values.” 16 U.S.C. § 459c-6. Wildlife is clearly one of its natural values.  The fence would clearly impair necessary wildlife movement.  That’s the very purpose of it.

VI.  OVERALL CONCLUSION

There are several problems with this whole idea of fencing the elk (and other wildlife).   Wild animals don’t belong inside enclosure fencing.  That’s basically what defines a zoo.  Doing so in a national park is twice as bad.  Doing so in a wilderness area of a national park is twice as bad again.

Boundary Fence.   Building an 8-foot boundary fence designed to prevent the movement of wildlife within a national park seems a contradiction.  I think it would raise serious questions under the Park Service’s Organic Act and the Point Reyes legislation for the reasons discussed above.  To the extent the boundary fence might affect the wilderness and its resources (wildlife etc.), it may violate the Wilderness Act as well.  The boundary fence would also be a waste of time and money because the elk would walk around one end or the other.  Smaller animals, however, may be more affected to the extent they don’t travel as far as elk do.  Those animals would suffer the impacts  discussed in the boundary fence section.  The fence would also be an eyesore, especially if it crosses the beach at Limantour.  If it were built, I think most people would say that the people benefiting from the fence should bear the cost.  All of this also calls into question the fence at the Elk Reserve.

Enclosure Fence.  Having wildlife inside a large fenced enclosure makes the park seem like a zoo.  If an enclosure fence is built, Point Reyes National Seashore will become the Point Reyes National Zoo.  The likelihood of a containment fence violating the Park Service Organic Act and the Point Reyes legislation is even greater than the boundary fence option.   Furthermore, based on the discussion above, it seems like a containment fence would violate the Wilderness Act.  Even if the law doesn’t preclude building and maintaining an enclosure fence in the wilderness, there are all the negative impacts discussed above such as impacts on wildlife, impacts on visitor experiences, cost, etc.  Finally, there is the National Park Service policy mentioned above to the effect that it will not maintain captive herds of wildlife for the enjoyment of the public, but that it instead maintains wild populations within natural habitats.

Given all the above, I think that the chance that the Park Service will build a fence to contain its wild tule elk in the wilderness is essentially zero.  I don’t think it even has a choice.  The ranchers who want the elk rounded up and put in an enclosure in the wilderness need to come up with a new idea.

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Point Reyes National Seashore; Fencing Harmful to Wildlife

I hope the bobcat that I wrote about in my last blog is OK.  It may not have looked like it was very injured, but we couldn’t see its underside and a single barb or point of barbed wire that cuts through the animal’s skin as the animal goes through the fence can cause a serious laceration and possibly expose and tear muscle and other tissue below the skin.  A laceration can lead to infection and death.  It can also attract flies which will lay eggs in the wound.  Once that happens it’s just a matter of time.  The animal seeks cover at some point and is never seen again.

I’ve been concerned for some time about the harm barbed wire fencing can do to wildlife.  What got me started was seeing the photo below of a deer caught in a barbed wire fence in late 2011.

Photo of a deer caught in barbed wire.

This mule deer is alive, but its legs are lacerated to the bone.

The photo was taken by my friend, Larry Thorngren.  If you click here you can read about the incident.  The deer was alive, but the legs were lacerated to the bone.  The deer was beyond saving and therefore shot.  A sad event and an unnecessary death.  As you will come to understand below, this deer got caught in the fence because its hind feet did not clear the top wire and there was not enough clearance between the top wire and the wire below it.  The result is sometimes referred to as “scissoring.”

The photo prompted me to search the internet to see what I could find about barbed wire fencing and wildlife.  The first thing I found was a paper published in 2009 by the Colorado Division of Wildlife entitled “Fencing with Wildlife in Mind.”  A little later I found a 2008 document published by the Montana Department of Fish and Wildlife entitled entitled “A Landowner’s Guide to Wildlife Friendly Fences.”  It was the basis for much of the Colorado paper.   That Montana document has been followed by a later edition:  “A Landowner’s Guide to Wildlife Friendly Fences,” Second Edition, 2012, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (hereafter “Montana Fencing Guide” or “Guide”).  The document (both editions) was written by Christine Paige, Ravenswood Ecology, Jackson, Wyoming.  To download and/or read the document click here and then click on the second-listed link.   The Guide has been used by several other state wildlife agencies in developing their own guides to fencing.

The Guide starts off acknowledging that fences are needed to control livestock, but that they can also be hazards to wildlife, including birds.  It describes fences that are harmful and how to build fences that are not harmful.  There are several pictures showing animals killed by fencing, primarily barbed wire fencing.  Note also that the title says it is a landowner’s guide.  It was prepared for ranchers who want to use fencing methods on their lands that are considerate of wildlife.  Most ranchers in Montana and the other western states have a relatively small private land holding, obtained originally under the Homestead Act or some other federal land disposal law, and a larger area of Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”)  land that they use for livestock grazing under federal grazing permits.  The Guide’s purpose is to show ranchers how to construct or modify fences on their land that restrain livestock, but not wildlife.  Wild animals, unlike domesticated cattle, need to travel daily in search of food, water and cover; and, at appropriate times, to mate and give birth.   Fences impede that necessary travel.

One of the things the Guide reports on is a two-year study of wildlife deaths caused by 600 miles of fencing in an area of northeast Utah and northwest Colorado.  The study found that, on average, one ungulate (deer, elk or pronghorn) per year was found tangled (and dead) for every 2.5 miles of fence (at 600 miles that’s 240 animals per year).   Most ungulates (69% juveniles and 77% adults) died by getting caught in the two top wires while trying to jump the fence.  See photo of the deer above.  70% of all deaths were on fences higher than 40 inches.

We don’t know how many animals die each year at Point Reyes due to barbed wire because no one is inspecting all the miles of fencing every day.  Some animals do die and still others are injured.

An example of what barbed wire can do to animals at Point Reyes is the skull of this large bull elk below.  It died a horrible death.  This should not happen anywhere, but especially not in a national park.  This animal’s skeleton was found on Mt. Vision above Home Ranch.  Note how the left antler split into two antlers.

Photo of a dead tule elk.

Large Bull Tule Elk Killed by Barbed Wire

I don’t know how the barbed wire became so tangled on this poor creature, but I’ve seen several pictures on the internet of elk with barbed wire in their antlers.  In this case the wire wrapped around the bull’s lower jaw and cut half way through the jawbone over time as it tried to eat and drink.  See next photo.

Photo of bull elk with barbed wire holding its jaw shut.

The barbed wire cut its way through the elk’s jawbone.

The wire was either (1) attached to a fence in the normal manner, (2) detached in part, or (3) completely separated from a fence and laying on the ground, possibly in coils.  During the rut, bulls (and buck deer) will spar with bushes or anything on the ground and that may be what happened here.  The wire could have been on the ground and/or tangled in some brush.  Anyway, before long the wire wrapped around his antlers.

If you look closely you can see the barbed wire crossed the bridge of its nose which prevented the lower jaw from opening much.  Note how the elk’s attempts to open its lower jaw to eat and drink caused the barbed wire to cut into the bridge of its nose.  We don’t know how long this poor elk suffered.

Photo of elk wearing a headdress of barbed wire.

Wire Cut Into Bridge of Nose

Note the sharpened barbs in the photo and the photo below.  What is barbed wire?  It’s twisted steel wire (two strands of wire that are twisted (see photos)) with sharp points at intervals of three, four or five inches.  Barbs come in two versions, two-point or four-point.  It’s been used in wars (e.g., the beaches at Normandy), around prisons (and concentration camps in WWII) and any other time someone wants to restrict movement of people or animals.  It’s the cheapest way to restrain cattle.  It’s sold in reels of 1/4 mile in length and it only costs about $60-$70 per reel.   It’s also very light at 40 to 80 pounds per reel depending on the gauge of the wire.  It lasts from about three to ten years.  It’s galvanized, but still rusts and eventually fails.  The sharpened barbs are quite capable of puncturing and tearing flesh.  The barbs are over 1/2 inch long.

Here’s a photo showing more closely what the barbs look like.

Photo showing barbs on barbed wire.

Barbed Wire Barbs

Given the harmful nature of barbed wire, it should be used at Point Reyes only under the most stringent and safe conditions, if at all.  The wildlife there deserve no less.

Getting back to the Montana Fencing Guide, it describes a wildlife-friendly fence as follows:   It should allow animals to jump over or crawl under it without injury.  Page 10.  It should be highly visible (white pvc pipe around the top wire or flagging at regular intervals) so animals don’t run or fly into it.  Id.  The top wire should be low enough for adult animals to jump over, preferably 40 inches, but no more than 42 inches; the distance between the top two wires should be 12 inches, preferably 14 inches, so elk and deer won’t tangle their back legs with the top wires (like the deer in the first photo above).  Id.   The bottom wire should be at least 16 inches, preferably 18 inches, from the ground.  Id.  The top and bottom strands should be “smooth wire” (like regular two strand twisted barbed wire, but without the added barbs) so animals don’t get snagged and injured.   Id.  Posts should be at 16.5 foot intervals.  Id.  In areas where fences must be built on slopes, the degree of slope must be taken into account.  A 42 inch fence on a 30 degree slope is equal to a 62 inch fence if the animal is standing on the lower side of the fence.   Id. at 9.  Fences should be three wire, preferably, or four at most.  Id., at 32.

I’ve been wondering for a while whether BLM had any standards for fencing regarding wildlife.  I thought that if any federal agency would have such standards it would be BLM because it manages millions of acres of public lands used for grazing by ranchers in the western states.  As I was writing this post I finally did a search and found that BLM does in fact cover fencing in its manual.  The fencing portion of the manual can be found here.

It’s 57 pages in length and a considerable amount of it is focused on wildlife.  It generally follows what the Montana Fencing Guide says with slight variations.  It’s important to understand that it wasn’t written as a suggested guideline for ranchers for their private property, but to be the standard for fencing on the federal land managed by BLM.  It should also be kept in mind that BLM is a “multiple use” agency (i.e., with many responsibilities, including grazing, mining, timber, recreation, wildlife, etc. which are often in conflict and of equal weight, generally), in contrast to the Park Service whose job it is, above all, to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects, and the wild life [sic] therein.”  16 U.S.C. § 1.

Before addressing the specifics of fencing in the BLM Manual, here is some prefatory language to more fully understand the standards:

2.  Deer, Elk, or Moose Habitat.

     a.  Limitations.

(1)  Woven wire, 5- or 6-strand barbed wire fences and fences exceeding 42 inches in height all pose serious problems for deer … When the lower strands of wire are both close to the ground and to each other, they impede movement of fawns and yearlings which tend to go under or through a fence.

(2)  Normally, deer jump with their hind legs forward.  If the top two wires are too close together or loose, deer often tangle their hind legs, resulting in broken legs, entangled animals dying of starvation or shock, and broken fences.  Elk jump the same way, but usually move on after breaking the fence or injuring themselves.  Within elk herd movement areas, fence damage can be extensive.

b.  Standards.  Illustrations 1 and 2 depict fencing standards to be used in deer, elk, or moose habitat.

BLM Manual, IV-5 and IV-6.  (Emphasis added.)

Illustration 1 is a table which shows combinations of livestock and wildlife species using the same land.  It shows that when you have deer and elk in an area where cattle and sheep graze you should use three-wire fencing.  It should be 38 inches high and there should be 16 inches clearance on the bottom and 12 inches clearance between the top wire and the middle wire.  It also states that the bottom wire must be smooth.  Illustration II uses drawings instead of words to show how each fencing situation looks in terms of height and spacing of wires for the various combinations of wildlife and livestock.

So, how do the fences at Point Reyes stack up to the BLM Manual and the Montana Fencing Guide?  I developed a sense over the past 2.5 years that the fencing was not good.  I did some measuring at various times and knew heights and clearances between wires were bad, but I didn’t keep records of those measurements.  Based on three recent trips to measure a number of fences I can say that all the pastoral fences I measured failed the BLM standards and the Montana Fencing Guide on almost all counts.

The discussion below is based on 20 fence measurements on what I believe was 12 ranches (not always clear where one ranch ends and the next one begins).  For simplicity’s sake, I decided to use one of the two sets of standards/guidelines.  I decided to use the BLM standards  because BLM is a federal agency (a sister agency, no less) and because, like the Park Service, it owns the lands being fenced.  As you’ll recall, the BLM standards are no more than three strands; 38 inches in height; 16 inches clearance at bottom; 12 inches clearance between the top wire and the next wire and the bottom wire must be smooth.  (The fences wouldn’t have fared any better under the Montana Fencing Guide as you’ll see if you keep those guidelines in mind when reading below.)

Of the 20 fences, none met the 38 inch height limit; only four met the 16 inch clearance requirement at the bottom; and none had smooth wire at the bottom.  Eight of the 20 were five-strand fences that are not allowed under BLM’s manual (or the Montana Guide), one was a six-strand fence and the rest were four strand fences.  Thus, none met BLM’s three strand requirement.  Finally, all failed the 12 inch clearance requirement between the top two wires.  The deer in the photo at the top got tangled in the fence because the top two wires were too close together.  The Utah-Colorado study found almost 75% of the animals died because the top two wires were too close together.

The six-strand fence I found was especially egregious.  It’s 48 inches high with only 9 inches between the two top wires and, instead of 16 inches of clearance at the bottom, there was one wire at 6 inches and another at 11.5 inches.  How does a deer fawn get through that?  There is a little more space between the second and third wires.  The third wire is 21 inches from the ground.  That leaves a space of 9.5 inches between the second-lowest wire and the third-lowest wire.  How big is that?  I got out the metal ruler I used in the park and laid my little finger on the zero and stretched my thumb and got to 9.5 inches.  Same as the space in the fence.  Looking at my outstretched palm, a deer fawn couldn’t get through that with those long gangly legs.  Furthermore, it is much easier for a fawn to crawl under one wire than to pick its way between wires.  If a fawn can’t get past a fence it just lays down and waits for its mother to come back (and sometimes they don’t as reported in the Montana Fencing Guide).  A coyote couldn’t get through there either.  It would even be iffy for a bobcat.  Maybe this is where the bobcat that I wrote about in my last blog ran into trouble.  As for the 48 inch height, as BLM says, five-strand or six-strand fences and fences over 42 inches “pose serious problems for deer.”

Photo of fence at Point Reyes National Seashore that is too high for wildlife to jump over and too low for them to crawl under.

Point Reyes National Seashore; Fencing Harmful to Wildlife

Because there has been so much coverage in the news about elk breaking fences on the C Ranch’s side of Drakes Beach Road I took several measurements there.  I found three spots along the road that had broken wires.  The first broken fence section was just after turning onto Drakes Beach Road.  The top two stands were broken. The ground was covered in what I think was poison oak so I didn’t measure there.

The next break was of a top strand.  It was 44.5 inches high (on the portion still attached to the post) and the clearance between the top wire and the next wire was only 9.75.  The last broken wire was a second wire just a short distance toward the beach from the previous  break.  It measured 42.25 inches at the top and the clearance between the top two wires measured 10.75 inches, but it would have been slightly less if the second wire hadn’t sagged some because of the break that began on the other side of the post.

Fortunately, the wires on these two areas of the fence line broke.  If they hadn’t, the animal’s feet would have been caught in a “scissors” hold by the wires and the animal would have been helpless as was the case of the deer at the beginning of this blog.

I want to point out first that we don’t know how those strands broke.  In the case of the fence panels in the poison oak and the second break of the two breaks I did measure, the wires that broke were rusted (and are now laying on the ground, which is not good).  They could have failed on their own and, in any case, probably weren’t as strong as when they weren’t rusted.  Finally, a cow could have broken one or more of them.

But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that elk broke the wires.  As for the two I measured, no wonder the top two strands broke.  We know from the BLM Manual and the Montana Guide that the fence is too high along the road and there isn’t enough clearance between the top two wires.  This is a recipe for broken fences and injured or dead elk (and deer).

If an elk or deer doesn’t clear the top wire, and if the wire below the top wire is high enough to catch the animals lower rear legs/hooves as they rotate back under the top wire, then the animal becomes trapped or “scissored” by the two wires.  In that case the animal hangs from the fence with the weight of its upper body making it a prisoner of the wires until it dies or is rescued by a human.  See first photo above.  Even if a human comes along (with the necessary heavy wire cutter or bolt cutter), there is no guarantee the animal will live.  The deer in the first photo had to be shot.  The best case is that the elk or deer breaks one or both top strands and therefore doesn’t get “scissored.”  However, even in that case, the animal can suffer lacerations or other injuries, such as broken legs, that can lead to death.  If elk (or deer) broke these fences, they may have been injured and their injuries may have resulted in their deaths.

This is absurd.  More important, it’s inhumane.  Given the fact that elk inhabit this area and they are breaking these too-tall fences, with top wires too close together, this should be treated as an emergency and the fences on the west side of Drakes Beach Road ( and perhaps the east side) should be modified per the provisions of BLM’s Manual and/or the Montana Fencing Guide.  This should be done before any more fence wires are broken and elk (or deer) are injured or killed.

I should mention that the Park Service has installed wildlife crossing fence panels at one spot on each side of the road.  The top wire(s) were removed and replaced with 4×4 posts installed parallel to the ground.  The tops of these 4x4s are 34 inches from the ground.  The elk seem to prefer crossing at these spots and I don’t think any cattle have crossed them.  A couple more of them along each side of the road would seem likely to prevent more broken fences and injuries or deaths to elk (or deer) there.

Photo of an elk crossing fence.

Elk Crossing Fence

I need to say some more about broken fences at Point Reyes.  There are broken fences everywhere in the pastoral zone.  The three fences along Drakes Beach Road are not unusual at all.  Here’s one of the photos I took of broken fences.  This one is on the Tomales Peninsula.  Note the condition of the old, rusty wire.  If a deer crosses here it could get its legs tangled in the wire.

Photo of a broken fence.

Broken Fence

Here is another broken fence on the Tomales Peninsula.  Let’s take a closer look.  There are two wires coming off the top of the post.  They appear to be relatively new in that they show no rust.  The top wire is intact, so why is either of them attached to the top of the post?  Below them there is a third wire that is broken (for unknown reasons) and hanging down from the post.  I assume it ran from this post to the post to the left of it.  It doesn’t appear rusty either.  All three wires seem to be quite long and all are laying on the ground.  Some have loops in them.  They are all hazards for wildlife, especially any buck deer that would be looking for things to joust with during the rut.

Photo of loose wires hanging off a fence post.

Loose Wires Hanging Off Fence Post

Leaving fencing like this along fence lines is just asking for some animal to get caught in it.  The Park Service needs to patrol for this kind of thing and require the rancher to fix it immediately.

In summary, the Park Service needs to establish a fencing policy for all fencing at Point Reyes.  It should adopt the most stringent standards in the BLM Manual and/or the Montana Fencing Guide.  After all, unlike ranchers in Montana, and BLM with its multiple use mission, the Park Service has a legal mandate for every park to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life [sic] therein ….”  16 U.S.C. Section 1.   (Emphasis added.)  The Point Reyes statute goes on to say the Secretary shall administer the property “without impairment of its natural values.”  16 U.S.C. § 459c-6.  Wildlife is clearly one of its natural values.

On the other hand, ranching is only allowable to the extent it doesn’t interfere with the Park Service’s statutory mission to conserve wildlife and doesn’t impair the park’s natural values (including wildlife).  It is discretionary under the statute and, if allowed, “shall be subject to such restrictive covenants as may be necessary to carry out the purposes of” the Point Reyes statute.  16 U.S.C. § 459-6.  Again, “purposes” includes wildlife.  Ranching is not a purpose of the park.  If it were, the statute wouldn’t be worded the way it is.

If the fencing standards above are followed at Point Reyes, wildlife is much less likely to get injured or killed and much less likely to damage fencing.

Addendum:  I thought this post was going to end with the previous sentence.  However, as I was reviewing the draft, I decided to call the park to see if there was any fencing policy or guideline used by the park.  I hadn’t found any national fencing policy for the Park Service so I wasn’t expecting anything.  However, I learned the park has developed a set of specifications that it uses whenever the park hires a contractor to build a fence for its own reasons, like excluding cattle from creeks or other sensitive areas.  I was told it is also the spec that is referenced in some or all leases/permits for any fencing done by ranchers.  It is as follows:  Five strand; 48 inch high; bottom clearance 12 inches; clearance between all other wires, including the top two wires, 9 inches.  The top and bottom wires are to be smooth.

Every part of these specs is contrary to both the BLM Manual and the Montana Fencing Guide, with the exception of smooth wires.  The park should  modify its fencing specs and its fences immediately to meet the specs of the BLM Manual and/or the Montana Fence Guide.  Furthermore, why isn’t excluding cattle from creeks and other sensitive areas a rancher obligation and cost?  Why should the Park Service use park funds to subsidize the ranchers?  Finally, because this fencing also excludes deer and elk from creeks, where are they supposed to get their water?

The pastoral zone is essential habitat for all sorts of wildlife, yet it seems no one is taking wildlife into account there.

Second Addendum:  I erred in including the special fence the park installed along Drakes Beach Road as one of the 21 fences measured.  It isn’t a regular barbed wire fence with its 4×4 wood post at the top and angled wires beneath.  I’ve gone back and changed the number “21” to “20” where “21” appeared.  No other changes are necessary because I didn’t use that fence for any of the measurements discussed.

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