- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2004

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — As the Wyoming countryside begins to thaw, biologists and game wardens are canvassing the rugged terrain to solve an alarming mystery: Why have hundreds of elk slumped to the ground and died in less than two months?

Despite intensive research, the deaths have stymied state officials, who have investigated a host of theories, ranging from poisoned plants to exposure to heavy metals.

“The only time we’ve ever seen any deaths like this before have been winter-related deaths — severe winters, starvation-type things, which is not the case,” state veterinarian Dr. Walt Cook said.

At least 289 elk have been affected in south-central Wyoming since early last month. The sick animals usually slump to the ground and cannot get up. Many eventually die of thirst. Some also have been euthanized by employees of the state Game and Fish Department.

Officials have discounted any foul play because deliberate poisoning of so many wild animals would be virtually impossible.

“We’ve basically ruled out all those common things, and so now we’re just looking at what are all the uncommon things,” Dr. Cook said.

Officials also are checking whether the elk may have become so frightened that they ran themselves to exhaustion; been bitten by ticks, which carry a mild toxin in their saliva; or consumed monensin, a feed additive for cattle that is poisonous to many animals, including elk.

Valerius Geist, an elk researcher in British Columbia, said he has never heard of such a die-off in his 48 years of research in the field.

With so many possibilities ruled out, about the only one left is that the elk ate a toxic plant.

Scientists speculate that a plant species the elk were used to eating may have become poisonous. Mr. Geist said plants can become more toxic the more they are grazed.

“That’s how they protect themselves,” he said.

Another possibility is that the elk arrived in Wyoming from elsewhere, perhaps as far away as Colorado, and ate a toxic plant without knowing any better.

Lab tests should shed light on the theories. When the results are complete, Mr. Cook wants to gather possible poisonous plants and feed them to healthy elk to see whether they develop similar symptoms.

“If they do, then we’ll have the answer. If they don’t, it’s one more thing to cross off the list and move on,” he said.

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