Officials alarmed by Wyoming elk die-off

More than half of a herd, mostly female animals, mysteriously succumb

March 06, 2004|By Julie Cart | Julie Cart,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RAWLINS, Wyo. - Wildlife officials are combing the snow-covered high plains here for clues to explain the mysterious deaths of 280 elk, more than 60 percent of a herd that inhabits the southern edge of Wyoming's Red Desert.

State Game and Fish officials say they cannot recall an elk die-off of this magnitude unrelated to harsh winter weather. The stricken elk, wintering in a broad swale, were found beginning a few weeks ago, dying of dehydration or starvation.

"There are a lot of strange things about this," said Dr. David Barber, an epidemiologist for Wyoming's Health Department.

"The legs seem to be especially weak, or there is neurological paralysis. Yet, in the early stages, the head and neck and eye movement are perfectly intact.

"Everything about it is unprecedented: the number dying, the number affected, all in a fairly small area. There are a remarkable lack of clues. It's really a baffling picture."

State veterinarians say they have found nothing in the annals of wildlife medicine that mimics the symptoms displayed by the normally robust elk here. In addition to the paralysis or weakness, forensic experts find it odd that the illness has targeted females, nearly 84 percent of those afflicted.

Strange, too, is the capricious nature of the outbreak. Nearby herds of antelope, mule deer and wayward livestock have not been affected. Nor, officials say, do the affected elk appear to be contagious.

The elk have been found in what's known as Hunt Area 108, a 520-square-mile tract about five miles outside Rawlins, in the south-central part of the state.

The situation is being monitored by state health officials, who have been fielding citizens' calls attributing the illness to aliens, ranchers' poisoning and water tainted by waste from oil and gas production, which has been undergoing rapid expansion in the area.

Wyoming's wildlife bureaucracy has been mobilized. The Game and Fish Department has sent biologists, veterinarians and wardens into the field, flying over the area and walking it in search of downed animals.

Over the weekend, Greg Hiatt, a wildlife biologist for the agency, steered a pickup along a barely discernible road, then skidded the truck to a halt. "There she is," he said, pointing to a dark shape crouched at the bottom of a snowy ridge. "Wow. She's still alive."

Getting out, he crunched across the rind of frozen mud and peered through binoculars. "She's one tough gal."

Hiatt watched as the cow elk struggled to rise, her front hoofs pawing at the ground to no avail. After a few frantic moments, she slumped back down. During a severe winter storm the next day, Hiatt and game wardens moved the live elk to the state's most sophisticated veterinary lab, in Laramie, where she was being rehydrated and observed by veterinarians.

There, scientists have been examining and testing elk carcasses almost around the clock. Officials say the majority of known wildlife diseases have been ruled out, including chronic wasting disease, as well as most bacterial, viral and common parasitic ailments.

Water, plant and soil samples have yielded little for scientists to go on, although the tests are continuing.

"We've done all the easy stuff," said Dr. Merle Raisbeck, a veterinarian at the lab. "We are now into the oddball things. It's a process of elimination. It certainly looks like something poisonous, but you never know."

If it spreads, the die-off could have economic consequences for Wyoming, whose wildlife viewing and hunting draw visitors. Hunting and fishing are the largest components of the state's tourism industry, which is the state's second-largest revenue producer.

Wildlife officials said that because of the die-off, hunting would likely to be banned in Area 108. That is disturbing to local hunters, whose recreational schedules are set by the hunting seasons.

Hiatt, the wildlife biologist, said he had ruled out "point source" causes such as ground water tainted by chemicals.

"At first we thought it might be a chemical spill or something in the water," he said. "But this is something that has to be widespread."

Hiatt suspects that the sick elk might be eating plants they are unaccustomed to and that the drought-stressed plants have stored toxins that are killing the animals.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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