Tule elk at Tomales Point continue to die and activists have lawyered up to save them.

Lawyers representing In Defense of Animals and the National Park Service sparred before U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam in Oakland this past week.

It was the first court date for the elk, which have been dying on Tomales Point at Point Reyes National Seashore because of poor management by the National Park Service, activists allege.

“They’re making rules that are favoring private businesses at the expense of wildlife,” activist and lead plaintiff in the case Jack Gescheidt said of the National Park Service.

The elk in question are on land that is fenced and nearby are grazing cattle and a working dairy operation, the only National Park Service unit that has one. Other national park lands have grazing cattle, too.

The National Park Service thinks it must balance natural resources such as tule elk with cultural resources, Gescheidt said. He said 478 elk have died in the last decade.

“Lots of elk are dying,” Gescheidt said.

He thinks the National Park Service is favoring cattle ranching operations over the elk.

Gescheidt and In Defense of Animals is represented by the Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School.

Attorney and Clinical Fellow Kate Barnekow said activists are seeking a court order to compel the National Park Service to act rather than just monitor the elk situation.

Gilliam has received assurances from the Park Service before and then 72 more elk died, Barnekow said.

No decision was made at the Feb. 24 hearing after Gilliam heard from both sides.

What’s at stake

Gilliam focused on two issues, Barnekow said. One was whether the activists are allowed to sue, and the other was whether the National Park Service has discretion over when to revise the general management plan for Tomales Point.

The National Park Service is arguing, Barnekow said, that activists have suffered no injury, so they are not entitled to sue.

Barnekow said that assertion is incorrect. The activists, who live near Tomales Point and recreate there, have been harmed because the National Park Service failed to revise the general management plan, which has led to elk deaths.

The activists enjoy the natural wonders and wildlife including the tule elk.

“They’re making rules that are favoring private businesses at the expense of wildlife.”

Jack Gescheidt, plaintiff

Barnekow said federal law requires the elk at Tomales Point to be protected and preserved. But because of the fence they cannot get to adequate food and water and are dying of starvation and dehydration.

But the National Park Service has not revised the general management plan for Tomales Point in more than 40 years. It also failed to consider factors like severe droughts that have affected the herd.

Tule elk are not on the federal endangered species list and two other herds exist at Point Reyes National Seashore. One is called the Limantour herd, and the other is at Drake’s Beach. Neither is fenced in.

Lawyers for the National Park Service argued that the Park Service has discretion over when to revise the general management plan because the law says it must do so in a “timely manner.”

Barnekow and the activists think 40 years is not timely.

The National Park Service declined to comment for this story citing pending litigation.

Keith Burbank is currently a fulltime reporter covering Alameda County and Oakland news for Pagransen. He has also worked on the Data Points project for Pagransen, finding trends and stories about the region through data. In 2019, he was a California Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, producing a series about homeless deaths in Santa Clara County. He worked as a swing shift editor for the newswire for several years as well. Outside of journalism, Keith enjoys computer programming, math, economics and music.