For Immediate Release
May 14, 2020
Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project, (307) 399-7910
Deb Moskowitz, Resource Renewal Institute, (415) 928-3774
POINT REYES STATION, Calif. – Citing the widespread public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, two conservation groups today served notice on the National Park Service that cattle on Point Reyes National Seashore are known to be carriers of a bacterium causing Johne’s disease, which infects Park wildlife and poses a potential serious public health hazard for visitors to Point Reyes National Seashore.
“The COVID-19 crisis shows that zoonotic diseases – those that jump from animal species to humans – can pose serious public health risks, and crop up in unexpected ways with serious consequences,” said Erik Molvar, Executive Director with Western Watersheds Project. “The Park Service has known for years that cattle herds that graze on leased Park Service lands are infected with Johne’s disease. And as evidence mounts that the Johne’s bacteria can spread to humans as well as wildlife, we are alerting the Park Service to this public health hazard the agency needs to eliminate.”
In their comments on the General Management Plan for Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the groups had already addressed how Johne’s, a wasting disease affecting the digestive tract, is being transmitted from cattle to the rare Tule elk who live in the park. The COVID-19 crisis caused the groups to dig deeper into the medical science regarding Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis, which causes Johne’s disease, and they found an emerging medical consensus that this pathogen poses serious disease risks in humans as well.
“When we dug deeper into the science, we discovered that the Johne’s disease bacterium wasn’t just a major problem for Tule elk, but also a human health risk,” said Deborah Moskowitz, President of Resource Renewal Institute, a local conservation group. “Visitors to the National Seashore should be able to enjoy this spectacular park without worrying about contracting debilitating illnesses from livestock.”
According to medical research, M. a. paratuberculosis (sometimes abbreviated MAP), is most closely associated with Crohn’s Disease, which in humans causes inflammation in the small intestine and colon, sometimes resulting in abscesses, diarrhea, even pus-filled sores on the skin. Medical research has also linked this bacterium to human cases of irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes, and colorectal cancer.
“According to the science, there is a risk of transmitting the disease from contaminated water or lands, so livestock manure that is washed into the streams that drain down to the beaches, as well as the practice of liquefying manure and spreading it on the hilltops, raise serious health concerns,” said Moskowitz. “If the Park Service continues to authorize the leasing of National Seashore lands for high concentrations of cattle, it could be putting recreational visitors at risk.”
Up to 6,000 cattle are allowed to graze on 23,000 acres of National Park Service lands at Point Reyes, a high-density concentration of livestock that elevates the risk of disease transmission to over 3 million recreational visitors who gather at the beaches and hiking trails of Point Reyes each year. While there have been programs to test Tule elk for Johne’s disease and kill infected animals to cut the disease out of the herd, there has been no requirement to test and slaughter the cattle that infected them.
“Given that there is no way for the Park Service to guarantee the safety of Park visitors in such a high-density recreational destination in close proximity to an infected population of cattle, the obvious solution is to transfer the cattle operations to private lands that don’t pose the same public health hazards,” said Molvar. “The Park Service shouldn’t be putting the entire visiting public at risk for contracting a serious zoonotic disease just so they can extend a handful of commercial cattle operations that should have moved to private lands years ago.”
The Western Watersheds Project letter and the Resource Renewal Institute letter were submitted today via email, along with the original journal articles from the medical science literature documenting the disease implications.