Natalie Hanson

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge ruled in favor of the National Park Service on Monday and rejected claims by animal rights activists that the agency endangered Tule elk populations north of San Francisco.

A group of plaintiffs and the Animal Legal Defense Fund claimed the National Park Service failed to revise a 1980 management plan for the Tomales Point portion of the Point Reyes National Seashore. There, approximately 293 Tule elk live behind an eight-foot fence erected to prevent them from competing for forage and water with the cattle that the service permits to graze on park land.

The plaintiffs’ complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief filed June 2021 claimed that drought conditions in the area have become “extremely dire” and about 152 elk died in the prior year, more than a third of the point’s total elk population, due to a lack of adequate food and water. Plaintiffs said the elk will continue dying due to the failure to revise the Congress-mandated management plan for the national seashore, arguing this violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

The plaintiffs also challenged the service's decisions not to remove any of the fence preventing the elk from accessing adequate food and water, as well as the decision not to provide any supplemental food and give water only to some of the elk. They said those decisions cause “a slow and horrific death that could be prevented.”

In August 2021, a federal judge denied the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction ordering the service to immediately "ensure that the Tule elk who live on Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore are provided access to sufficient food and water to ensure that these animals do not continue to die of starvation and/or dehydration.” The plaintiffs amended their complaint to only challenge the lack of a revised general management plan for Tomales Point.

The National Park Service argued argued the plaintiffs lacked standing and cannot state a procedural injury because the management plan does not affect their interests. Further, the agency said tule elk management decisions are addressed in the 1998 plan, and plaintiffs cannot establish that getting the general management plan revised would affect management or health of the tule elk.

In a 26-page order filed Monday, U.S. Northern District Court Judge Haywood S. Gilliam granted summary judgment to the government and denied the plaintiffs' request for same.

On the one hand, he found the plaintiffs have an aesthetic interest in the national park's resources, and the Supreme Court has confirmed that “the desire to use or observe an animal species, even for purely aesthetic purposes, is undeniably a cognizable interest for purposes of standing.” He therefore declined the service’s invitation to limit the procedural injury doctrine to statutes giving the public the right to notice and comment, and found the plaintiffs produced sufficient evidence to pursue their claim and show injury.

However, Gilliam ultimately found the plaintiffs had to demonstrate the National Park Service had a nondiscretionary duty to act, where the service argued that a statute cannot compel any “discrete” act without a statutory time frame.

“It defies common sense to believe Congress intended the service to prepare and revise such complex documents ‘quickly’ or ‘rapidly,’” Gilliam wrote.

The judge said the requirement that the service must revise management plans “in a timely manner” gives the agency “a great deal of discretion” in determining how and when to do so. He declined the plaintiffs’ request to compel compliance “without suggesting any particular manner of compliance” — saying that if he did, he would be the one to “work out compliance" and be involved in “day-to-day agency management,” which he lacks authority to do.

“The court understands plaintiffs’ concerns that the tule elk population at Tomales Point has decreased significantly over the last few years. But the court must faithfully adhere to the limits of the APA,” Gilliam wrote, noting the Ninth Circuit has held that the ability to compel agency action is “carefully circumscribed to situations where an agency has ignored a specific legislative command.”

He added, “As the court has previously explained, it is not indifferent to the conditions facing the tule elk. But plaintiffs have not identified a viable legal basis that would entitle them, or the court, to intervene in the Park Service’s wildlife management decisions.”

Gilliam closed the case. Attorneys and representatives for the National Park Service did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

"Our clients are extremely disappointed in the court’s ruling which is in direct conflict with an earlier ruling by another member of the same court, Judge Armstrong, who had already ruled that the Park Service has a mandatory duty to revise its general management plans for all units of the National Park system," Katherine Meyer, director of the Animal Law and Policy Clinic, said.

"We are particularly concerned about the ruling because, in the meantime, hundreds of Tule elk, who are supposed to be protected by the Park Service, are continuing to die of starvation and thirst because they cannot obtain access to the national seashore habitat south of the fence that the Park Service maintains across Tomales Point for the benefit of livestock ranchers who were allowed to stay in the seashore on a ‘temporary’ basis when the seashore was established decades ago. Without immediate action by the Park Service, this wildlife, that is supposed to be protected by the Park Service, will continue to die excruciating deaths from a lack of food and water."