April 19, 2023Media ReleaseHarvard Law Clinic Appeals Decision in Tule Elk Case
For immediate release: 19 April 2023
Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic today appealed a recent ruling in favor of the National Park Service (NPS) in a case it filed on behalf of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and local residents challenging the Park Service’s failure to protect the imperiled Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California.
The Plaintiffs challenged the failure of the Park Service to revise its 1980 General Management Plan for the Tomales Point portion of the Point Reyes Seashore 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. Elk cannot reach water and forage south of a fence that the Park Service maintains along the southern border of their confined habitat on the Tomales Point peninsula. The fence was erected decades ago at the request of the cattle ranchers who do not want the native elk competing for food and water with their for-profit cattle.
The case was filed after several years of elk numbers plummeting due to a lack of water and food. The Plaintiffs alleged that the 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 Park Service to provide supplemental food and water to the elk to prevent additional suffering from emaciation and 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 Park Service began the process for updating the General Management Plan. But, 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 Park Service had no statutory duty to amend the Plan. Because Plaintiffs disagree with the decision – which is also at odds with a prior ruling by another judge of the same Court—today they appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Plaintiff Laura Chariton, a resident of California was an unpaid Tule elk docent for the Point Reyes National Seashore for four seasons and has been visiting the park since 1974. She has spent hundreds of hours watching and studying the sensitive Tule elk inside the fenced Reserve.
“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. I continue to be disappointed by the lack of consideration, respect, or empathy for this magnificent species,” she says.
She further explains: “Elk are vital to a functioning, biodiverse ecosystem, but herd health continues to diminish in the genetic bottleneck created by their confinement. This tragic situation demonstrates that the National Park Service, a public agency, is completely unresponsive to both the wild animals it was chartered to protect, and to the public it is supposed to serve, ignoring public sentiment and animal cruelty.”
Fellow Plaintiff Jack Gescheidt, an environmentalist, artist, and educator who has lived in California since 1996 and has been visiting Tomales Point in the Point Reyes National Seashore on a regular basis for at least twenty years, said: “I am disappointed, and even a bit shocked, by the court’s recent ruling, since the court acknowledged that Tule elk are in jeopardy and that any legislative remedy could take years, and that elk could continue to suffer and die during this time and then delay a decision for over a year.”
He adds that there is a prima facie connection between the death of hundreds of elk dying in the last decade, and their being confined by the fence onto drought-stricken land –because elk in the park’s other two herds did not suffer such dramatic population declines.
“Simply put, the fenced confinement is killing large numbers of Tule elk inside a national park unit where wild animals are supposed to roam free,” said Gescheidt. He feels that “the Park Service is ignoring its obligation, as defined in the founding 1916 Organic Act legislation, to value the park’s ‘natural resources’ — in this case its Tule elk — above all other considerations. And certainly, above the financial interests of commercial cattle operations which are responsible for the elk’s deadly confinement.”
“I remain hopeful that this inexplicable decision, lethal to wild elk inside the Point Reyes Elk Reserve, will be reversed on appeal,” says Gescheidt.
Animal Legal Defense Fund Managing Attorney Christopher Berry adds: “Tule elk continue to die from starvation in the Point Reyes National Seashore under the current management plan. 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.”
Sarah Pickering 617 852-6484; [email protected]
Mike Andrade-Heymsfield 707-364-8387; [email protected]
Notes to Editors:
Images, video and interviews available upon request.
Timeline in Case:
August 16, 2021: Worsening Conditions for Tule Elk at Tomales Point
August 2, 2021: Elk Motion Response
July 27, 2021: Judge Calls Hearing in Tule Elk Case
July 20, 2021: The Park Service Keeps Revising Pertinent Facts
June 24, 2021: Emergency Relief Sought for Tule Elk in California
August 31, 2020: National Park Service Urged to Tear Down Elk Barrier
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.