Challenging the Government’s Fatal Mismanagement of Protected Tule Elk

Tule elk are a beloved fixture at the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California. But the National Park Service (NPS), the federal agency responsible for protecting them, is failing at the task — with numerous elk suffering and dying as a result of its negligence. 

Updated

June 29, 2021

Work Type

Litigation

Status

Active

Next Step

National Park Service to respond to lawsuit

Tule elk are a beloved fixture at the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California. But the National Park Service (NPS), the federal agency responsible for protecting them, is failing at the task — with numerous elk suffering and dying as a result of its negligence. 

On June 22, 2021, the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s coalition filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the NPS to take action to prevent the starvation and dehydration of these imperiled animals.  

Tule elk are a native California subspecies, but their population plummeted to near-zero during the 1800s; they were reintroduced in the 1970s, and their population in the Point Reyes area now numbers in the hundreds. While the elk’s rebound has been widely viewed as a conservation success story, the situation now facing their Tomales Point population is far more dire. Though the elk are protected by law, the NPS nonetheless prioritizes the interests of private farmers and ranchers — who lease a portion of this public land for grazing cows — over the well-being of the elk by keeping them confined behind a fence. 

Four tule elk herds live in Tomales Point, part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. The NPS has for decades maintained the fence restricting the elk to a specific management area, preventing them from competing with cows for food and water. But as drought conditions in the region have worsened, food and water for the elk have become scarce. Three of the four water sources inside the management area are now dry, and not every herd has access to the sole remaining water source. Prevented by the fence from traveling further in search of food and water, more than 150 elk died in 2020 alone — over a third of the entire tule elk population at Tomales Point. And the drought conditions are likely to worsen, further endangering the animals. 

The complaint seeks a court order requiring the NPS and U.S. Department of the Interior to enact plans ensuring that the elk have access to sufficient food and water. On June 24, plaintiffs filed an additional motion seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to require the NPS to take immediate action to protect the elk from starvation and dehydration. 

The Animal Legal Defense Fund and three individual co-plaintiffs are represented pro bono by the Animal Law & Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. 

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Who is being sued, and why? The National Park Service, to compel the agency to fulfill its responsibility to ensure that native tule elk have sufficient access to food and water. 

Under what laws are they being sued? The Administrative Procedure Act, a federal law governing federal agency decision-making and much of the process by which federal government agencies can enact and effect regulations.  

Why is this case important? The government has a responsibility to conserve and care for protected wild species, but far too often, commercial animal agriculture interests are prioritized over the needs of wildlife and public lands. The Animal Legal Defense Fund uses legal action and legislative advocacy to protect wild animals and their habitats from harm and exploitation – while also working to combat the animal agriculture industry’s detrimental effects on animals and the environment. 

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Location:

California