Cattle Impacts

Dairy cow on L Ranch in Point Reyes National Seashore. (All photos on this page by Laura Cunningham.)

Mud and fences: L Ranch cattle pasture on Point Reyes National Seashore. Invasive annual grasses and weeds are 100% of the vegetation here.

Trailing and erosion, old fences that are not wildlife-friendly.

Silage field growing invasive crops to supplement dairy feed. Why is this allowed in a National Park unit?

European milk thistle and poison hemlock in cattle pastures. Noxious weeds.

Head-cut erosion from beef cattle on Home Ranch, Point Reyes National Seashore. This is not the best park management of land.

Feedlot for cattle--in a national park! A mud mess during the winter rains.

Farm truck and equipment traffic. 

Modern dairy cow loafing barn constructed a few years ago. Is this historic property and cultural landscapes inside a National Seashore, or a commercial factory farm?

Alfalfa hay trucked in to feed thousands of hungry dairy cows, in our national park. Where do the trucks come from? Most likely the Central Valley.

CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) on L Ranch, Point Reyes National Seashore.

By late summer, many of the annual grassland cattle pastures are grazed and trampled down to dirt. Point Reyes National Seashore cannot sustain the level of ranching presently allowed by the park service.

Thistle fields-crop

Invasive European thistles


European radish


Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) invasive non-native


Hare barley (Hordeum murinum ssp. leporinum) introduced annual grass from Europe


Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), toxic weed from Europe


Rattail fescue (Festuca myuros) introduced annual grass

Private ranches were bought out more than four decades ago, at fair market value

and enormous taxpayer expense, following the establishment of Point Reyes National

Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. According to the National Park Service (NPS), the land was purchased from ranch owners, who in many cases continued to ranch under time-limited reservations of use and occupancy. As the reservations expired, the NPS continued to authorize ranching and dairying with agricultural lease/special use permits. Currently, 24 ranching operations (in the "Pastoral Zone" of the two park units) are authorized for beef and dairy ranching under lease/permits which include terms and conditions for the protection of natural and cultural resources.

The time-limited lease/permits expired years ago, yet the ranchers refuse to agree to the original terms of their buy-outs. Are natural and cultural resources truly being protected now?

In our observation, the vast majority of the Pastoral Zone has been type-converted from native perennial coastal prairie and wet meadow into annual grassland—consisting largely of introduced European species. California annual grasslands experience a long summer dry season, even in the coastal fog belt, where maintaining cattle can be difficult unless supplementation is given, or cattle are moved to irrigated pastures. In addition, forage quality declines below the nutritional needs of many kinds and classes of livestock during the summer dry season here. The question presents itself, should feed supplementation on this scale be allowed in a national park unit? Tons of alfalfa hay are trucked into the park. Is it certified weed-free?

The impacts of dairy and beef cattle on the native ecosystems of Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area are severe. The Home Ranch, the McDonald portion, which is a beef operation according to the NPS lease/permit, has 300 Animal Unit's (3600 Animal Unit Months) of beef cattle on 2,660 acres. During site visits, this range appeared to consist of heavily grazed introduced annual weedy grassland without a shred of native coastal prairie left. There were degraded ravines with significant erosion and head cutting. Springs and streams were impacted by livestock trampling and vegetation removal. This is unacceptable erosion for any

public land, let alone NPS land. Home Ranch here is in an active state of degradation, not

improvement of range conditions. There is no chance of restoring native plants here with

beef cattle.

Introduced species dominate these cattle-grazed fields, hills, and swales. Most species are introduced European annual grasses and weedy forbs. Highly palatable coastal prairies species have been eliminated from the ranch leases. Many areas appear mowed, perhaps to reduce coastal bush lupine which is somewhat toxic to cattle. Other patches are grown with silage. Many heavily grazed areas had erosion, head-cutting of ravines, multiple trails, mud blow-outs, ATV ruts, and feedlots reduced to bare ground and invasive milk thistle and poison hemlock.

Silage fields are actively planted, tilled, and harvested areas on park lands, to provide extra forage for dairy cows. The stocking rate is so high that the meager annual grasslands in the park cannot sustain so many head of cattle (around 6,000). So the commercial dairy operations must try to supplement so many lactating dairy cows (and lactation requires a lot of calories) by growing introduced crops--some of which are invasive weeds which spread to wild natural parts of the park. The silage fields in Point Reyes National Seashore consist of:


• Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum)—Nitrogen-fixing white-flowering invasive weed.

• Mustard (Brassica sp.)—Nitrogen-fixing yellow-flowering invasive weed.

• Field pea (Pisum sativum)—Nitrogen fixing crop.

• Domestic crop grasses such as barley (Hordeum sp.), ryegrass and/or rye (Festuca perennis, Secale cereale), and oats (Avena sp.).

NPS should ban all plantings of silage for supplemental cattle feed, as these species are wholly inappropriate and counterproductive to maintaining native plant communities in a park unit. All mowing of native shrubs, tillage, seeding, and silage-harvesting should halt. These are not historic cultural farming practices, but modern dairy agriculture, using the latest silage seeds that are introducing genetic plant material into native communities. These areas should be restored to native coastal prairie and North coastal scrub.

The bulk of the Pastoral Zone, consisting of California introduced annual grasslands dominated by European hare barley, ripgut brome, Italian ryegrass, and rattail fescue, should be rested from cattle grazing. Only by removing livestock can these continuously disturbed areas begin to stabilize soil loss, improve water quality, increase native plant species, and recover Threatened and Endangered species.

Heavy grazing by beef and dairy cattle is destroying the native coastal prairie, replacing native grasses with noxious weeds, and compacts soils.

This can be restored. Compare this impacted land with the rare coastal prairies still remaining on ungrazed sections of the park.

This is your public lands and your park. What do you think? Comment here to tell the National Park Service how you would like the Seashore and tule elk to be managed. 

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