Elk deaths in Wyoming “solved” – 03/22/2004

  • September 30, 2013 at 3:18 am #379

    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 died.

    “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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