Matthew Kline

June 24, 2021Emergency Relief Sought for Tule Elk in California

For immediate release: June 24, 2021

Emergency Relief Sought for Tule Elk in California

Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic, on behalf of three Bay Area residents and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, today filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction asking the federal court in San Francisco to require the Park Service to take immediate steps to ensure that the Tule elk at Tomales Point do not continue to die of starvation and/or dehydration while the court decides the lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Accompanying the motion were signed declarations from not only Plaintiffs, who describe the impact of seeing dead elk at the National Seashore, but also experts including Dr. Judd Howell, the wildlife biologist who conducted the Tule elk population study relied on by the Park Service, and a veterinarian who explains how excruciating it is for an animal to die from lack of food and water.

“If it weren’t for the Park Service still relying on a 41-year-old management plan for Tomales Point instead of updating the plan in a ‘timely manner’ as required by federal law, we would not be facing this crisis with the Tule elk who  are dying slow, horrific deaths every day,” said attorney Kate Barnekow. “Emergency legal action is now required to simply get the agency to do its job.” The motion follows a lawsuit that the Harvard Law Clinic filed against the Park Service on Tuesday and aims to ensure the remaining elk are protected while the case is pending.

Barnekow added: “Given that the rainfall this year is expected to be even less than it was last year, this dire situation will continue, and more elk—who are supposed to be protected in this national park unit—will continue to die torturous and inhumane deaths. This is why we are asking the Court to order the Park Service to take immediate measures to ensure that the elk do not continue to die in such large numbers while this case is being resolved.”

Although the Park Service recently announced that it was providing supplemental water to the elk, a declaration by James Coda, a retired Assistant U. S. Attorney who is extremely familiar with Point Reyes National Seashore, states  that he has now checked all three sources of water that the Park Service recently provided and verified that no water is being provided to three of the four herds living on Tomales Point. The Park Service is also not providing any food for the elk, even though it insists that a lack of forage, not water, is responsible for the huge die-off of elk last year.

“The National Park Service needs to take immediate action to provide basic care for the tule elk, who are dying at a frightening pace due to dire drought conditions in Tomales Point,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “We hoped filing of the lawsuit would convey the urgency and elicit desperately needed food and water for the elk–but at this point we are asking the court to intercede to ensure the animals will live to see justice done.”

Dr. Judd Howell explains how the National Park Service has failed to manage the elk population at Tomales Point. “The elk are unable to access adequate forage for more nutritious food and water. Instead, they have been left to die a slow painful death – literally starving to death. The elk are stuck in a geographic area deplete of food and water and left to die,” he says. In the mid-90s Dr. Howell’s team conducted a population study of tule elk at the historic Pierce Ranch on Tomales Point. The study, which successfully used contraceptives on female elk to slow the population growth rate, has been cited and relied upon by the Park Service. Dr. Howell explains that he did not anticipate the kind of recent population decline caused by the Park Service. “The Tomales Point tule elk population has been hugely diminished on the order of 30 to 50 percent in a short period of time,” he says.

Veterinarian Amy Allen, who examined necropsies of dead elk obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, explains to the Court that “seven of the eight necropsied elk were emaciated or cachexic (severely thin).” She also states that several of the animals “showed evidence of poisonous hemlock and/or lupine in their digestive tracts, which is an indication that there was not nutritious forage available.” She added: “elk with adequate access to food/forage would not choose to eat poisonous plants. The starving elk were desperate enough to eat even poisonous food. Dying by starvation and dehydration is inhumane. I can think of no worse way for an animal to die. It is prolonged agony, where the elk are presumably hungry all the time and spend most of their energy looking for food, even eating poisonous plants trying to survive.”

Plaintiff Laura Chariton, a resident of California who has enjoyed visiting Point Reyes National Seashore since 1974 has not seen a single elk calf at Tomales Point in the last year. “This, to me, is a sign that the elk on Tomales Point are in such bad shape that they either will not breed or they have no ability to care for or otherwise protect their young. I worry that the tule elk herd at Tomales Point will not be able to survive much longer,” she said.

Plaintiff Jack Gescheidt adds: “My visits to Point Reyes are now akin to visiting a dog shelter: I see beautiful, innocent animals who only want to live. I want them to experience a healthy, happy, safe life of freedom. But I know many more, perhaps even hundreds more, are likely to die this year, through no fault of their own and that there is so little I can do to prevent this. All of this is reprehensible to me, and it causes me emotional anguish and anxiety.”

Skyler Thomas, who has personally seen as many as 15 dead elk, also submitted a declaration: “Witnessing these scenes of death and unimaginable torturous last hours for the Tule elk have had a profound and sad impact on me. I no longer even like visiting Tomales Point. So now I am faced with the decision to either forego visiting a place that I have come to love and that so enriches my life or to go there anyway and risk seeing the horrific sight of dead or dying elk. When I think of Tomales Point, I think of—and now sadly have come to expect—the worst.”

Read the motion for emergency relief, written declarations and other exhibits to the Court, filed today. Videos and images also are available.

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Media contacts:

Sarah Pickering 617 852-6484; [email protected]

Mike Andrade-Heymsfield 707-364-8387; [email protected]


Notes to Editors:

The Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School is committed to analyzing and improving the treatment of animals through 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.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund was founded in 1979 to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. To accomplish this mission, the Animal Legal Defense Fund files high-impact lawsuits to protect animals from harm; provides free legal assistance and training to prosecutors to assure that animal abusers are punished for their crimes; supports tough animal protection legislation and fights harmful legislation; and provides resources and opportunities to law students and professionals to advance the emerging field of animal law. For more information, please visit aldf.org.

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