The Point Reyes National Seashore will take another look at the way it manages tule elk on Tomales Point, citing unprecedented drought impacts. The fenced-in herd continued to die off this year, the latest elk census shows, and the park is facing pressure from animal rights activists over its hands-off management strategy. Last week, months after the park finalized its contentious general management plan, superintendent Craig Kenkel announced he will pursue a new plan for Tomales Point, updating a more than 20-year-old strategy that predicted fluctuating herd numbers but never accounted for climate change. “I think they’re responding to our pressure,” said Jack Gescheidt, an animal rights activist and prominent critic of the elk reserve. For him, any plan that keeps the enclosure in place won’t be enough. “They’re going to do every machination under the sun to avoid dealing with the source of the problem, which is the fence that separates elk from cattle land.” In a press release, Superintendent Kenkel said the update reflects the severity and frequency of drought in the last eight years and will include “resource and site-specific analysis to address wilderness and elk herd management and decisions.” Public comment on the plan’s scope and alternatives under the National Environmental Policy Act will begin by March, and the environmental impact statement process will begin in 2023. Seashore spokeswoman Melanie Gunn said the park would not provide additional comments because of a pending lawsuit filed in June by the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic. The suit, brought on behalf of local animal rights activists, alleged the park had neglected its duties by allowing elk in the reserve to die from inadequate forage. Tule elk were reintroduced on the former Pierce Point Ranch in 1978, and the herd multiplied behind the elk fence over the following two decades. By 1998, the population threatened to overwhelm the capacity of the reserve, and the park drafted its tule elk management plan, recommending the relocation of 27 elk to a carefully selected wilderness area near Limantour Estero. Within a few years, some of those free-ranging elk made their way onto cow pastures near Drakes Beach, setting up a clash with ranching operations. The park’s general management plan amendment, which was finalized by a record of decision in September, allowed for the culling of some Drakes Beach elk but made no mention of the Tomales Point herd, though drought conditions were dire and demands to remove the fence were fevered. This month’s census counted the Tomales Point herd at 221 animals, down from almost 300 last year. The population had already decreased dramatically from around 450 in 2019. The latest results show a continued decline; the herd has been cut in half in two years, similar to a die off that occurred between 2012 and 2014. But the park said the population has remained stable since early summer, and that staff found only three carcasses of elk that died between May and December, despite extensive searches. In June, the park provided water to the Tomales Point herd for the first time ever, installing seven water troughs in the reserve. Three months later, the park added mineral licks to help alleviate nutrition deficiencies, which it identified as the cause of last year’s die off. This year, the park has not yet released any census numbers for the free-ranging Limantour and Drakes Beach herds, the latter of which is now subject to culling if its numbers rise above 140. According to the park’s wildlife managers, the Limantour herd has expanded southeast in the Phillip Burton Wilderness in recent years, with bulls being spotted along the Sky Trail. Local ranchers have also reported that the herd has begun to cause new problems for agricultural operations on the Home Ranch. Dave Press, the park’s wildlife ecologist, said the free-ranging elk counts would be available in late February or March.