ENVIRONMENT

U.S. Sued After 150 Fenced Tule Elk Die In California Drought

The animals, confined at the Point Reyes National Seashore to keep them away from cattle ranches, couldn't reach water, the lawsuit contends.

Wildlife advocates sued federal officials over the deaths of 150 tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore in California, saying fences are blocking the animals from reaching water during the state’s long-running drought.

The tule elk, endemic to California, died over the last two years, confined inside an eight-foot fence to a 2,200-acre portion of the 71,000-acre public seashore. The elk are fenced to stop them from competing for forage with commercial beef and dairy operations allowed on the public land.

The elk are dying a “slow and horrific death that could be prevented,” says the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the Northern District of California by the Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic on behalf of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and three longtime park visitors who have seen multiple dead or dying elk.

Defendants include Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the acting director of the National Park Service and the superintendent of the Point Reyes National Seashore.

The park’s management is “causing tule elk at Tomales Point to live in inhumane conditions and to die of starvation and dehydration because they cannot obtain access to adequate food and water,” the suit says.

The court action challenges the National Park Service’s failure to remove fencing, provide the animals with supplemental food and supply water to all of the fenced-in elk.

Park workers have routinely ripped out water troughs set up by wildlife advocates, but suddenly installed some of their own two weeks ago, advocates for the elk said. 

“Fantastic,” one of the lawsuit plaintiffs, Jack Gescheidt, told The Marin Independent Journal. “It’s what we’ve been saying they should have done for over a year so that 152 elk didn’t die unnecessarily. It’s a great temporary fix, but more elk will still die because of inadequate food in the elk penitentiary.”

Two tule elk herds in the park — with a total of almost 300 animals — are not fenced and have largely survived the drought.

Point Reyes is the only park in the nation with tule elk, which were reintroduced there in the 1970s after their numbers dwindled.

Management of the herd is hugely controversial at Point Reyes, one of the few national seashores that allows dairy and beef ranching. Some 5,500 cattle are raised on beef and dairy operations that occupy about a third of the public park.

Point Reyes’ northern elk herd has always been fenced off to keep them from competing for forage with the ranch animals. In a 2013-2014 drought, the elk population plunged from 540 to 286 as old stock ponds dried up and the animals died of thirst, according to wildlife experts.

California’s top coastal regulators in April narrowly granted conditional approval to a federal plan granting cattle ranchers new 20-year leases and killing some of the elk to prevent conflicts. The Interior Department is required under a court settlement to decide on the management plan before July 14. 

Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, slammed the proposed “slaughter” of the elk, which is likely to be challenged by environmental groups.