The National Park Service has been sued over its handling of the fenced tule elk herd on Tomales Point. The lawsuit, filed by the Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic, alleges the park has failed to protect the animals from “horrific and preventable deaths,” allowing them to starve and die of thirst behind the elk fence.

“It’s not just a matter of being inhumane,” said Kate Barnekow, an attorney from the Harvard law clinic. “They’re abdicating their duty under federal law.” She called the legal action “long overdue.”

The suit claims that by not updating the Point Reyes National Seashore’s 1980 general management plan or its 1998 tule elk management plan to address the needs of the enclosed herd, the park service violated its duty to conserve natural resources. 

In 2016, another lawsuit against the park, filed on behalf of a coalition of environmental groups, alleged the park’s general management plan was outdated and environmentally unsound. A settlement agreement prompted an amendment to the plan, but the new guidance did not address the Tomales Point herd, and the amendment is pending.

The Harvard clinic filed the suit on behalf of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a Sonoma County nonprofit, and three individual plaintiffs. The suit alleges that the plaintiffs, who have each been vocal in their opposition to the park’s management of the elk, suffered aesthetic and recreational injuries when they witnessed elk suffering and dying from malnutrition and dehydration. The clinic makes the case that seeing the elk in this state “haunts” the plaintiffs, causing them emotional distress and forcing them to forgo visiting the park. 

Plaintiff Jack Gescheidt is a Fairfax-based photographer who was issued a citation during last year’s illegal actions to bring water to the elk. He believes it is the park’s duty to protect wild animals above all, and he said the elk are being held hostage by ranching interests in what he called a “brutal betrayal.” 

“I see the horrid situation they’re in, in a fenced compound, which exists only at the behest of ranchers,” Mr. Gescheidt said. “It’s a national park. They should be wild animals.”

Laura Chariton, another plaintiff, directs the Watershed Alliance of Marin, a nonprofit that signed onto a letter asking the California Coastal Commission to reject the park’s amendment, which addresses ranching and the park’s two herds of free-ranging elk. Ms. Chariton was a tule elk docent for the park and signed an online petition last year calling for the firing of seashore officials Dave Press, Melanie Gunn and Brannon Ketcham. She wrote that she was “appalled by the failure to adequately assess the stress of forced and obvious famine and drought on the rare tule elk herd of the PRNS.”

Skyler Thomas, the third plaintiff, is a wildlife photographer who wrote and directed the documentary film “The Shame of Point Reyes.” Mr. Thomas believes agricultural operations should be removed from the park. “I personally don’t expect anything good to come from the current park staff,” he said, “but at least the public is starting to wake up to what is happening.”

The nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund, the last plaintiff in the case, had an active voice in the general management plan amendment review process. Cristina Stella, a managing attorney at the fund, said: “We really hope that the National Park Service does the right thing and starts fulfilling its statutory mandate.”

Last year, about 150 elk died on Tomales Point, a loss the park attributed to malnutrition due to drought. The park’s elk management plan says a boom-and-bust population cycle in the enclosure is expected, but earlier this month, the park changed course and announced it was providing water in the enclosure for the first time ever. 

Activists were thrilled, but many felt the action came too late. Mr. Thomas posted a video on his blog criticizing the park for providing only water and not forage.

“The park service only provided the water that it did in response to media coverage and public outcry,” Ms. Barnekow said. 

Even with supplemental water, the plaintiffs fear that some elk will still die of thirst. Mr. Gescheidt said the water troughs, which the park installed in the southern section of the preserve, won’t be accessible to sub-herds that occupy the northern area. The lawsuit cites a 2010 study that found the enclosure is home to four separate herds that never cross into each other’s home ranges, meaning that water sources for some might not be accessible to all. 

The lawsuit is just one of the ways the plaintiffs are working to put pressure on the park service. On July 3, Mr. Gescheidt will lead a “Free the Tule Elk” rally at the cattle guard where Pierce Point Road crosses the elk fence. “We plan something more dramatic to get more media attention,” he said. 

Melanie Gunn, the park’s outreach coordinator, declined to comment on any aspect of the pending lawsuit.