September 30, 2013 at 3:18 am #379MikeKeymaster
Mon Mar 22,12:55 PM ET
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) – A lichen native to the Rockies has been blamed
for the deaths of at least 300 elk in southern Wyoming, a mystery
that had baffled wildlife scientists and cost the state thousands of
dollars, the state said Monday.
Wildlife veterinarians had suspected the lichen after finding it in
the stomachs of many of the elk that died in south-central Wyoming.To
confirm their suspicions, three elk were fed the lichen at research
facility. One collapsed and was unable to rise Sunday, the Wyoming
Game and Fish Department said. A second elk also started stumbling
and a third is expected to succumb quickly, officials said. All three
will be euthanized.
The ground-dwelling lichen, known as Parmelia molliuscula, produces
an acid that may break down muscle tissue, said Walt Cook, a Wyoming
Game and Fish Department veterinarian leading the inquiry.
Elk native to the area weren’t affected by the acid, but those killed
in the die-off apparently had moved in from Colorado and may have
lacked microorganisms needed to neutralize the acid, state biologists
said. The Colorado line is 80 kilometres south of the area where the
“Elk don’t normally winter down on the … unit where they ate the
lichen,” Game and Fish spokesman Tom Reed said.
“Elk are incredibly adaptable, tough animals. They’ll get by on thin
rations and they’ll make do somehow. But this year, nearly 300 of
them paid the price for that adaptability,” Reed said.
The first sick elk was found on Feb. 6 and scientists quickly ruled
out chronic wasting disease, the deer and elk version of mad cow
disease. They also eliminated most viruses and bacteria,
malnutrition, exposure to heavy metals such as arsenic, and poisoning
from a leaky gas well or pipeline.
The search for the cause became expensive. For a time, researchers
used a helicopter to search for afflicted elk, but the flights cost
$900 US an hour. Wildlife experts also drove into the rough country
near the Continental Divide and slogged through melting snow and mud
to collect plant specimens and elk droppings.
Scientists still want to know more about the lichen and why it
contained high amounts of the acid this year.
“There are a lot of factors we’ll need to look at,” Reed said. “Do
elk eat this lichen in normal years? If so, why hasn’t this happened
before? Does a long history of drought weigh in somehow? If so, what
are our management options in the future?”
The die-off killed up to five per cent of the Sierra Madre herd’s
breeding females, and that will affect hunting quotas this fall and
could trigger wildlife policy changes, Reed said.
Other steps, such as improving range conditions to provide healthier
forage, will also be considered as researchers learn more and try to
prevent future die-offs.
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