Message Title: Update to Wyoming Elk Deaths
Author: Paula Posted: 03\04\2004 12:28
Science - AP
Biologists Look Into Wyoming Elk Deaths
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By MEAD GRUVER, Associated Press Writer
CHEYENNE, Wyo. - Biologists are trying to determine what is causing the biggest elk die-off anyone in Wyoming can remember.
• Elk Deaths (Wyoming Game and Fish)
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The elk started falling nearly a month ago and the death count has topped 280 over a 15-square-mile area in south-central Wyoming. But that figure is probably low because officials have stopped counting to focus on the cause.
It has been a process of elimination, with no solid theories yet.
"This is quite unprecedented for wildlife. The only other time we find this kind of die-off of wildlife is a winter kill — starvation, that kind of thing," said Walt Cook, a veterinarian with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "And that's not what's going on here."
With plenty of forage available and hardly any snow in their way, the elk are relatively fat, suggesting they have at least been willing and able to eat.
Chronic wasting disease — the elk and deer equivalent of mad cow disease — has been ruled out from post-mortem examinations. The usual viruses, bacteria and plant toxins also have been eliminated.
A vitamin or mineral deficiency remains a possibility. Four elk that did not die or were euthanized have been taken to the state veterinary lab in Laramie for study and to be nursed back to health. But while those elk have been given a pharmacy aisle of vitamins and minerals, as well as water and anti-inflammatory drugs, they have not been recovering.
That leads Cook to consider some unusual infectious agent or toxin.
While remote, the area 150 miles northwest of Cheyenne has a railroad running through it and some oil and gas wells.
"All those sources have been looked at pretty darn hard and we're going to continue to look at those to see if we can see anything," said Tom Reed, spokesman for the Game and Fish Department.
Yet even pollution seems unlikely considering that other animals in the area, including deer and antelope, remain healthy. Elk are usually the last animals to succumb, not the first.
"Elk are extremely adaptable, they are extremely ruggedly built. They are built for hard winters, tough conditions," Reed said.
A possible clue is how most of the elk have been adult females and calves, with just one older male afflicted. During the winter, adult bull elk roam higher ground in groups called bachelor bands while elk cows and calves keep to lower areas.
Another possible clue is the discovery of muscle lesions in the downed elk. Biologists hope to learn whether the injuries caused the elk to fall or were sustained while the elk struggled on the ground.
Even with the nation's wildlife authorities working on the mystery, Cook wonders if it ever will be solved.
"That's something we have to be prepared for," he said.