A coalition of three environmental groups has again sued the Point Reyes National Seashore, this time over its newly amended general management plan. The same nonprofits whose 2016 lawsuit spurred the update to the plan are now hoping to reverse the park’s decision to extend ranching leases and allow the culling of free-ranging tule elk.

“The systemic problem is that the park service has let themselves be cowed by the ranchers and their allies,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, a plaintiff in the case. “They don’t manage the park for public interests and natural resources.” 

The seashore said it could not comment on the allegations or its management strategies because of the lawsuit.  

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Resource Renewal Institute and the Western Watersheds Project first sued after the park began working on a ranch comprehensive management plan. In the resulting settlement, the park agreed to halt work on the plan and instead amend its 1980 general management plan within four years. The amended plan was finalized in September, but the plaintiffs now say the result adheres closely to the park’s original goals for ranching, and that it should have done away with agriculture altogether. 

“We gave the park service the opportunity to do it right, and they went through the motions,” Mr. Miller said. “They ignored every single public comment that didn’t fit their idea of what they wanted to do with this plan.” 

The park service concluded the amendment process when it issued a record of decision in September, selecting the preferred alternative it outlined in 2019. The plan allowed for lease agreements of up to 20 years with two-dozen longtime ranching families, some diversified agriculture and the lethal removal of elk in the Drakes Beach herd above a threshold. 

Thousands of public comments had mainly favored the alternative that would have ended ranching. Yet park superintendent Craig Kenkel said the plan struck a balance between public comments and the needs of ranchers, and it ultimately included several changes in response to public input and recommendations from the California Coastal Commission. Some ranchers bemoaned the last-minute restrictions, which limited their opportunities to diversify, banned growing silage and required new adaptations to the growing presence of elk on pastures. 

The new lawsuit

The lawsuit filed on Monday bears a striking resemblance to the three environmental groups’ original 2016 suit. It alleges that the park is violating its fundamental responsibilities, and federal law, by allowing ranching on the public lands it protects. 

The 1916 National Park Service Organic Act establishes the purpose of the national parks: conservation of scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife “to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The park’s plan, the suit argues, will instead threaten the long-term viability of natural resources like coastal prairie and tule elk. 

The plaintiffs argue that the seashore’s 1962 enabling legislation directed the park to ensure “maximum protection, restoration and preservation of the natural environment.” By choosing any option other than eliminating ranching, they say, the park did not ensure maximum protection of its resources. 

Laura Cunningham, the California director for the Western Watersheds Project, said public opinion has shifted in the groups’ favor since 2016. The groups have also amassed more evidence against the park, including lease violations by ranchers and water quality samples she said show ongoing degradation. 

The plaintiffs are again being represented by the environmental law firm Advocates for the West. “We have a stronger lawsuit this time,” Ms. Cunningham said. 

No hearing date has yet been announced for the lawsuit, which will be heard by Magistrate Judge Kandis Westmore of the Northern District of California.

Reaction to elk plan 

Last month, Superintendent Kenkel quietly announced plans to update the 1998 management strategy for the elk reserve at Tomales Point, which was not addressed in the general management plan amendment, starting next year. Critics and animal rights activists are bristling over the news. 

The Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic, which sued the park in June over its management of the fenced elk, filed a final brief last week asking the Northern District court to order the park to expedite the planning process. And Jim Coda, a retired National Park Service attorney who collaborated with the Resource Renewal Institute on the 2016 lawsuit, said the park is making the same mistake it did with the ranch plan. 

Updating the elk management plan without another top-down review of the general management plan was a “backwards” approach to planning, Mr. Coda said. He argued the park should have included the elk reserve in the scope of the general management plan amendment instead of taking a piecemeal approach. 

“It’s basically what they tried to do with the ranch comprehensive management plan and that goofy idea was brought to a screeching halt,” he said. 

While the seashore’s free-ranging herds are stable or growing, the Tomales Point population has swung sharply. And until recently, the park took a hands-off approach. When they published the elk management plan nearly 25 years ago, park staff predicted that their “least intrusive” management strategy would lead to fluctuating population cycles. Elk numbers would boom during rainy years and then shrink once populations approached the land’s carrying capacity. 

Indeed, after the fenced herd’s population soared to 465, the park moved two dozen elk to a remote area near Limantour Estero, establishing the first of the free-ranging herds. Since then, no elk have been introduced or removed from the reserve. 

In 2018, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife released recommendations to cut down on fenced elk herds and transplant animals from isolated herds to help promote genetic diversity. But the park has contended that releasing elk from the reserve or bringing in new animals could spread fatal infections like chronic wasting disease and Johne’s disease, which affects the park’s fenced herd. So the population cycles have continued in the reserve. 

But outcry over drought-related die-offs has mounted, and some wildlife managers have argued the population swings have become too stark. The Tomales Point herd numbered 221 animals this year, down from almost 300 last year and almost 450 in 2019. The previous low count of 283 animals came in the drought year of 2015. 

The Harvard animal clinic, which sued on behalf of the nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund and three local activists, argued that waiting until next year to start updating the elk plan could bring changes too late. The suit alleged the plaintiffs suffered emotional injuries by witnessing the suffering of elk, and that the park had abdicated its preservation duties by failing to update its management plan.

Lead attorney Kate Barnekow said the protracted planning process, which would likely not be finished until 2025, would lead to more elk deaths. “We’ve lost half the herd,” she said. “The fact that the park service is now claiming that it needs an additional three years is absolutely unacceptable, and may mean that it will be too late to save the elk.” 

Park officials have attributed the deaths inside the enclosure to malnutrition stemming from poor forage during the drought, rejecting activists’ claim that elk are dying of thirst. But this summer, officials installed three 250-gallon troughs throughout the reserve. In the fall, they added more water troughs and, for the first time, mineral licks meant to remedy the nutritional deficiencies that were killing the animals.  

In a release posted to the seashore’s website in December, Superintendent Kenkel said a new management plan for Tomales Point would respond to the severity and frequency of droughts, and U.S. attorneys filed a motion for the court to rule in the park’s favor by summary judgment in the Harvard clinic’s case. They cited Superintendent Kenkel’s announcement of the new management strategy, and said the move was discretionary: The court could have no authority to order the park to update its elk plan. 

“Though just beginning, that process represents everything—indeed, significantly more than—plaintiffs could hope to obtain through their sole cause of action,” the park’s attorneys wrote.

But Ms. Barnekow said the announcement is too vague and does not provide any immediate relief to the elk population. “The park service doesn’t actually make any legal argument, nor are we aware of any legal precedent, where the court grants final judgment to a defendant because they have started a process,” Ms. Barnekow said. “It’s hard to respond to something as nonsensical as that is.”

She asked for a one-year deadline for the park to complete its update. The park had argued that the necessary review under the National Environmental Protection Act would take significantly longer, but Ms. Barnekow cited a 2014 case, San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority v. Jewell, in which a federal court gave the Fish and Wildlife Service just one year to complete a biological report.  

“That case demonstrates that agencies may be required by courts to move incredibly quickly to remedy procedural injuries when serious, lasting impacts on protected species of wildlife are at stake,” Ms. Barnekow wrote in her brief. Although the tule elk is not a threatened or endangered species, it is protected under the park’s guidance to preserve natural resources with its management strategies. 

“If the park service wanted more time, then they should have started earlier,” Ms. Barnekow later told the Light. 

Yet the park’s attorneys argued that even if the court could order the park to revise the plan within a given time frame, neither the judge nor the plaintiffs could mandate any particular outcome. The argument echoed the results of the general management plan amendment, in which the three environmental groups did not get the outcome they were seeking and are now suing a second time. 

The park must file a response to the Harvard animal clinic’s brief by next week, and federal Judge Haywood Gilliam, Jr., will hear the matter in the Northern District’s Oakland courtroom on Feb. 24.