Lawsuit: Deaths of Point Reyes Elk Due to National Park Service Negligence

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Tule elk roam near Tomales Point in the Point Reyes National Seashore in 2016. (David Marks/KQED)

Dozens of tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore have died from starvation and dehydration in the last year because the animals couldn't get past a fence that the National Park Service placed to stop them from competing for food and water with cattle, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the federal government.

Three California residents and the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued the park service in federal court in San Francisco, claiming it is being negligent and saying more animals will die if the agency is not ordered to provide food and water during the drought.

"The National Park Service has a responsibility to protect and preserve these beautiful animals. The idea that depriving them of food and water somehow fulfills that responsibility isn't just absurd, it's undeniably inhumane," said Kate Barnekow, of Harvard Law School's Animal Law & Policy Clinic, who is representing the plaintiffs.

Point Reyes National Seashore spokeswoman Melanie Gunn said she couldn't comment on pending litigation.

Tule elk are a subspecies of elk native to California. The 700-pound animals, which were hunted to near extinction in the 1800s, were reintroduced in Point Reyes in 1978. Herds of the animals roam within a preserve at Tomales Point at the northern end of the national seashore.

According to the lawsuit, 152 elk — more than a third of the population — have died since last year, and necropsies obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the emaciated elk died of starvation or dehydration.

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The park service announced earlier this month that it had installed three large troughs after many of the stock ponds and other water sources began drying up earlier than expected due to lack of rain. But that water was only accessible to one of four herds at Tomales Point, the lawsuit said.

The fence was erected decades ago to prevent the elk from competing with the cattle that are permitted by the park service to graze on public land.

Some of the biggest names in the Bay Area's organic meat and dairy industry lease land in Point Reyes, including Straus Family Creamery, Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman of BN Ranch, LLC (and formerly of Niman Ranch fame), and David Evans of Marin Sun Farms.

Plaintiff Jack Gescheidt, an environmentalist and artist, has been visiting Tomales Point for at least 20 years. He said the park service cited him after he took troughs of water to the elk.

"The knowledge that approximately a third of the Tomales Point herd of tule elk has already died from a lack of adequate water and forage is absolutely chilling," he said. "I see these beautiful animals and want them to experience a healthy, happy, safe life, but I know that so many of them will die—through no fault of their own."