Shocking Court Decision Allows Tule Elk To Continue To Die From Dehydration And Starvation; This Must End!

Last week, The Animal Legal Defense Fund and local residents represented by Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinicappealed a recent ruling in favor of the National Park Service (NPS). The case challenged the Park Service’s failure to protect the imperiled Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California.

The lawsuit challenged the failure of the Park Service to revise its 1980 General Management Plan for the Tomales Point portion of the Point Reyes Seashore. This was to address the fact that the elk —who are required to be protected by federal law — were dying slow and prolonged deaths from starvation and dehydration. The elk are not able to reach water or forage south of a fence that the National Park Service maintains. The fence runs along the southern border of their confined habitat on the Tomales Point peninsula. The fence was erected decades ago at the request of cattle ranchers who do not want the native elk competing with their cattle for food and water.

“Tule elk continue to die from starvation in the Point Reyes National Seashore under the current management plan,” said Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Managing Attorney, Christopher Berry. “The National Park Service must follow the law and revise its management plan for the National Seashore in a timely manner to avoid needless death and suffering.”

“In recent successive drought years, I’ve seen emaciated, malnourished elk endure and die from hunger and thirst while trapped there, to benefit cattle ranches,” said Plaintiff Laura Chariton, a resident of California. “I continue to be disappointed by the lack of consideration, respect, or empathy for this magnificent species.”

The case was filed after several years of elk numbers plummeting due to a lack of water and food. The lawsuit alleged that the National Park Service had violated its mandatory duty to revise the general management plan, issued more than forty years ago. They also sought an emergency injunction to require the National Park Service to provide supplemental food and water to the elk to prevent additional suffering from emaciation, thirst, and death.

Although, the district judge denied the request for emergency relief, he expressed concern for the elk and expedited the case on the merits. In response to the suit, the National Park Service began the process of updating the general management plan, however to date, the revision has not occurred and the elk continue to suffer and die from confinement during California’s seasonal summer-autumn drought.

On February 27, 2023, the district court judge issued its ruling on the merits, holding that the National Park Service had no statutory duty to amend the plan. Since the Animal Legal Defense Fund and additional plaintiffs disagree with the decision — which is also at odds with a prior ruling by another judge of the same court — the decision has been appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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