Single tule elk stands majestically against an orange sky

August 31, 2020, National Park Service pressed to tear down elk barrier

For Immediate Release, August 31, 2020

POINT REYES, Calif.— In response to reports of tule elk dying amid an ongoing drought, the Center for Biological Diversity and Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic today demanded that the National Park Service remove a fence from Tomales Point in northern Point Reyes National Seashore that confines elk on a peninsula with inadequate water.

“Point Reyes is a national park, not a zoo. The park’s native wildlife shouldn’t be confined or prevented from finding water and food,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Park Service should tear down the Tomales Point fence so that all elk in Point Reyes National Seashore are able to thrive and find adequate water during a drought.”

Tomales Point elk are prevented from naturally migrating to reliable water sources by an eight-foot fence erected and maintained by the Park Service to appease cattle ranchers with grazing leases in the park. Cattle directly south of the fence have access to plentiful water sources, including naturally flowing streams.

“Unlike the privately owned cattle that have unrestrained access to water sources in this area, the elk are protected by federal law that requires the Park Service to ‘conserve’ them for the public and future generations,” said Katherine Meyer, director of Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic. “They should not be denied access to the water they need to survive.”

Tule elk in the fenced Tomales Point Elk Reserve depend largely on water in former cattle stock ponds to survive the dry summer and fall seasons. All but one of these ponds are dry or nearly dry. Conditions are similar to 2012-2014, when more than 250 elk — nearly half of the Tomales Point elk population — died from a lack of water. It appears that at least six elk have recently died on Tomales Point, with the causes of death not yet disclosed.

The Park Service posted a recent update stating that biologists have been monitoring the water availability in the elk reserve for several weeks. The update states that water is still available for elk in two seeps and springs on the peninsula and in a creek at McClures Beach and a large pond, and that a contingency plan is in place to provide water to the elk in the southern portion of the reserve if needed. The entire park is currently closed to the public due to the Point Reyes fire nine miles south of the Elk Reserve.

However, conservationists today called for more information on whether adequate water exists to maintain the fenced elk throughout the remainder of the dry season. Further, conservationists want the Park Service to perform necropsies on the elk that have already died this summer. They’re urging the Park Service, in the event that there’s a repeat of the lack of water that led to the 2012-2014 elk die-off, to immediately remove sections of the elk fence to allow the confined animals to roam to find water, or begin trucking in water to ponds in Tomales Point if necessary.

The organizations also called on the National Park Service to reopen the public environmental review for an elk- and cattle-ranching management plan underway in order to evaluate the elk barrier and water access.

The National Park Service Act and the California Tule Elk Preservation Act require the Park Service to conserve, protect, and maintain the elk in the national park. The Park Service is close to finalizing a ranch-management plan that, at the request of ranchers, would allow the agency to regularly kill a portion of the free-roaming Drakes Beach elk herd to limit their population growth.


Tule elk are native and endemic to California. There were once 500,000 in the state, but by the late 1800s impacts from cattle ranching and hunting had reduced their numbers to just 28. From one surviving herd, tule elk were reintroduced throughout the state; there are now an estimated 5,700 of the animals in 25 herds.

Tule elk were returned to Tomales Point in Point Reyes in 1978, and a free-ranging herd was established farther south in the park in 1998. At the end of 2018, there were an estimated 730 tule elk in Point Reyes National Seashore — 432 in the Tomales Point herd, 124 in the Drakes Beach herd, and 174 in the Limantour herd. Point Reyes Seashore is the only national park with tule elk.

Today’s letter from the Center for Biological Diversity and the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Program to the national park service.

Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School is committed to analyzing and improving the treatment of animals by the legal system. In 2019, it launched the Animal Law & Policy Clinic to provide students with direct hands-on experience in animal advocacy on behalf of both captive animals and wildlife, including litigation, legislation, administrative practice, and policymaking.


Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185, [email protected]

Katherine Meyer, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, (617) 998-2450, [email protected]