Endangered Elk Starve While the National Park Service Stands By

This summer, as California is experiencing some of the hottest conditions on record, around 293 endangered tule elk isolated on the Point Reyes National Seashore are in a fight for their lives—with no help from the National Park Service, the organization tasked with their protection. Confined behind an eight-foot fence erected by the Park Service to keep the elk away from nearby cattle ranches and within a 2,600-acre parcel known as the Tomales Point Elk Reserve, many of these elk face painful, lingering deaths due to disappearing water and food resources. On the other side of the fence, over 5,500 cattle graze on National Parks land—land that the native tule elk cannot access.

“It’s bad,” says Skyler Thomas, a documentary filmmaker who has been closely following the plight of the tule elk. He’d just returned from three days in the Point Reyes preserve, where he observed sick and starving elk whose hind ends were caked with dried fecal matter, as well as major sources of their water that were either completely dry or had shrunk to small, muddy pools. On previous visits to the National Seashore, Matthew Polvorosa Kline, a photographer who’s raised awareness about the elk’s situation, showed Thomas several dead elk, including one whose antlers were caught in the fence. Kline has identified up to 18 elk corpses since last summer. Thomas notes, “The ribs are showing. The animals are barely moving. I was watching an animal that was eating while starving to death… they’re dying.”

National Park Service sued over negligence

Thomas, along with other California residents and The Animal Legal Defense Fund, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit that’s been filed by Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic demanding immediate relief for the suffering elk and asserting that the National Park Service has been negligent in its management of the tule elk herds trapped at Tomales Point. The legal action seeks to compel the National Park Service to intervene on behalf of the elk, including providing emergency food and water resources to prevent massive deaths similar to those in 2013-2015, when nearly half of the population succumbed to starvation and dehydration, dropping their numbers from 540 to 283. In 2020, another 153 elk died from lack of adequate food and water. 

The lawsuit also challenges the National Park Service’s failure to update the 1980 General Management Plan and the 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan in the face of ongoing drought and diminishing resources. Jack Gescheidt, another plaintiff for the lawsuit, suggests that the National Park’s management strategies are “designed to actually kill elk to reduce their numbers because that’s what ranchers want, which just shows ranches and the private cattle operations’ interests now dominate National Park policy for Point Reyes.” 

Harvard Law attorney Kate Barnekow says, “The most obvious issue here is just the absolute lack of humanity with how the Park Service has been handling this issue…this is the worst way that an animal could die. It’s a slow death. It’s painful and it’s horrific.”

Animals suffering at Point Reyes National Seashore

The wild tule elk are not the only animals suffering at Point Reyes. Animals on dairy and ranching operations run by some of the biggest names in the state occupy 18,000 acres of Point Reyes on land that could be used by elk and other native species. South of the fence at Tomales Point, rows and rows of small plastic huts line what should be pristine coastal preserves. Inside these huts are calves who have been taken from their mothers so the milk meant for their nourishment can be sold. In other parts of the rich seaside, thousands of cattle roam, creating deep ruts in the land, consuming 50 pounds of forage daily (an elk consumes around nine pounds), using over 150,000 gallons of water, contaminating native pastures with their manure, and creating toxic runoff into the surrounding waterways and beaches. Two small free ranging tule elk herds also live on the peninsula. These herds have come under fire from the ranchers and dairies, who contend that they damage fences and compete with cattle for grazing, despite the fact that cattle operations have resulted in significant environmental degradation and dangerously high levels of fecal contamination (40 times the state health standard) on the seashore. 

The National Park Service claims, however, that these dairy operations, which pollute the environment and cause immense animal suffering, are cultural and historical resources that must be preserved. When the National Seashore was established in the 1960s, these “historic” cattle ranchers sold their land to the federal government to the tune of around $57 million ($382 million in current dollars) and then were allowed to lease the land for decades. The National Park Service has elected to extend their leases repeatedly. As a result, cattle operations on Point Reyes National Seashore benefit from cheaper grazing fees and no property taxes, all subsidized by U.S. taxpayers on land that was intended to be preserved for wildlife and public enjoyment.  

And even though the 2020 Environmental Impact Statement commissioned by the National Park Service admits the land would benefit from removal of the cattle operations, the 2021 budget justification for the National Park Service reaffirms its commitment to maintaining the ranches and dairies, and this doesn’t bode well for the elk at Tomales Point. As Barnekow puts it, “the cultural resources that need to be protected and preserved are the wildlife and the wilderness in the area, not a much more modern invention that confines animals, tortures animals, and is entirely unnecessary.”

National Park Service abdicates its duties  

While the National Park Service has repeatedly maintained the Tomales Point elk are dying from starvation rather than dehydration, in June 2021, they placed three water troughs at the south end of the fenced area, in just one area of the park far removed from the elk’s natural water sources. In the meantime, Thomas has observed elk become ensnared in mud while searching for water at their usual locations. He’s also noticed decreasing native plants and plant diversity. Some elk, desperate for food, have perished from eating poisonous plants, and yet the National Park Service has no plans to provide emergency forage for the elk or remove the fence to allow them to seek additional sources of food and water. 

Cristina Stella, an attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, contends that the National Park Service must urgently be held accountable for the endangered tule elk. “The elk have a right to that land,” she says, “and the Park Service is required to care for them. It’s absolutely inappropriate and irresponsible to elevate the interest of cattle ranchers with which they have a financial relationship over the interest of the elk that they are legally required to protect.” 

A National Park Service representative declined to comment.

Update: On July 20, 2021, Harvard Law responded to the National Park Service’s opposition brief to their lawsuit. In the brief, the Park Service doubled down on their assertions that the elk confined behind the fence were not suffering from starvation or dehydration, even though they are now supplying supplemental water to the elk. The Park Service also asserted that the fence had nothing to do with keeping elk off land used for cattle grazing, despite stating in their opposition brief that “a ‘mandatory’ fence to keep elk out of private lands and grazing areas” was an essential stipulation in the establishment of the Point Reyes Elk Reserve. The Park Service further alleged that removing the fence would make no difference to the captive elk, as they would not roam past the currently fenced-in area.

However, video evidence provided by Tony Sehgal to Harvard Law shows an elk mother and calf who have been separated by the fence, and photos from Matthew Kline indicate that the elk do indeed approach the fence. Attorneys for Harvard Law point out that the Park Service’s response contains many contradictions that don’t match the facts of the case, and ask “if, in fact, the existence of the fence is so meaningless—i.e., it neither deprives the Tomales elk of any food or water, nor is needed to protect the cattle ranches from competition from the elk—what possible purpose does this human-erected fence serve at this point in time, and why is the Park Service so bent on keeping it in place?” Harvard Law further asserts “this glaring inconsistency in the Park Service’s narrative alone should make this Court wary of uncritically accepting the agency’s many self-serving factual statements.”

A judge recently denied Harvard Law’s request for emergency relief for the elk, on the basis that the National Park Service has committed to providing necessary relief for the elk. Recent images from Point Reyes indicate a worsening of the situation for the elk, with witnesses on the ground estimating the last source of water in the northern part of the Reserve will be gone by the end of the month, if not sooner. Harvard Law has sent a letter to the National Park Service again demanding that they take action to save the elk. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 15 dead elk have been observed on the Point Reyes National Seashore since last summer. The correct number is 18.