At Point Reyes, Elk Have Become the Canaries in the Cattle Industry’s Dying Coal Mine

Suing the federal government was not on my bucket list. Yet here I am, lead plaintiff in Gescheidt v. Haaland, a lawsuit filed last year in U.S. District Court, Northern Division of California, by attorneys with the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Program.

With three co-plaintiffs, I assert that more than 150 tule elk died in Point Reyes National Seashore’s “tule elk reserve” from 2019 to 2020 — as a direct result of National Park Service mismanagement. We believe more than one-third of an entire tule elk herd was killed intentionally.

Park Service officials not only ignored its mandate to protect this rare, wild, native California species inside a national park unit, but caused the deaths by confining the elk behind fences, on land lacking adequate food and water. The Park Service has become a de facto zookeeper refusing to adequately feed and water its captive animals. It did this before labeling the resulting deaths “natural.”

Since filing the lawsuit, the Park Service revealed scores more elk have died; over half the reserve’s tule elk died (mostly likely of starvation and thirst) in just two years, from 2019 to 2021.

But I’m not in court just to sue the Park Service for killing Tule elk, though that’s reason enough. I want the public to get the big picture, the reason elk are confined in the first place: for the cattle industry. Park funds are subsidizing the ongoing environmental degradation of public land — by privately owned cows.

The general public still thinks — because they’re conned by industry advertising and public relations  — that because Point Reyes’ dairy and beef ranches aren’t giant and industrialized, they’re “sustainable.” Calling the ranches organic, local and, the latest buzzword, regenerative is all “greenwash” for an ecologically devastating business. These words are deployed to obscure an unavoidable fact: Methane from cows is a climate-heating gas.

Methane is a major contributor to our climate crisis, about 25 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, cattle produce about 25% of the world’s methane — more than the oil and natural gas industries combined.

There are more than 5,000 cows at Point Reyes – 10 times the number of tule elk. The cows weigh more than twice what elk weigh. They eat more, they drink more precious water, they trample land more and they poop more — much more.  The 5,000 cows dump more than 10 million gallons of untreated feces and urine, per year, onto Point Reyes land and into its waterways, which drain into the Pacific Ocean.

Why are private, for-profit, methane-belching, climate-heating cows inside a national park which, by law, is supposed to protect and preserve land, not exploit it for profit? I have heard enough about tradition and history. The cows graze and degrade as many as 28,000 acres — one third the entire Seashore — effectively closing its access to the public.

Who denies this environmental crime? Only the financially invested, the under-informed and denialists are avoiding the painful truth that our society must change. Big Ag, like Big Oil and Big Tobacco, stalls change, pushing non-science like “regenerative ranching” to cloud established science in hopes of protecting short-term profits.

Even many self-described environmental groups are silent about the cattle industry, cowed by its clout.

Our first day in Oakland’s federal court is Thursday. Our case focuses on the slaughter of tule elk by the National Park Service legislated to protect them. But the elk are just the canaries dying in the cattle industry coal mine.

We won’t argue about cow poop and cow methane before the bench. Federal courts have their rules and limitations, even a mandated bias favoring fellow government agencies like the National Park Service. But during the proceedings, the public can learn the full truth in the court of public opinion.

Literally every day I’m stunned that obvious, essential truths about cattle, the climate and our shared planetary crisis are ignored and denied by so many intelligent, caring, decent people. Intellectually, I understand why, but an idealistic fire still burns inside me.

Jack Gescheidt is founder of the TreeSpirit Project for wild forests. He supports wild animals through his work with In Defense of Animals.