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Deaths of Nearly 300 Elk Baffle Health Officials in Wyoming

Nothing in the annals of wildlife medicine offers clues, veterinarians say. More than 60% of a herd in south-central part of state has been wiped out.

March 03, 2004|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

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% 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. "It is an unusual clinical presentation. 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 unexplained paralysis or general weakness, forensic experts find it odd that the illness has targeted females, which make up nearly 84% of the afflicted animals.

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 stopped to peer through powerful 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."

Scientists performing elk necropsies noted oddities. They say the lacrimal glands under the elk's eyes are abnormally flared. The glands widen when elk are stressed, biologists say.

Many of the animals have lesions on their leg muscles, which doctors surmise may be the result of days of immobility.

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 when the season reopens next fall.

That, too, is disturbing to local hunters, whose recreational schedules are set by the hunting seasons. Said one local hunter, downing a beer in a bar: "It's what we do. If you aren't hunting, you are at work or drinking."

Along with many conservationists, some outdoorsmen blame the oil and gas industry for fouling water, disturbing wildlife and possibly poisoning the elk. State officials say they have seen no evidence tying the deaths to the energy industry.

Dan Neuman, an oil field welder who grew up in Rawlins, is unconvinced.

"We've got refineries in every direction," said Neuman, 23, a hunter. "You go out there and dig in the ground, it smells like diesel oil. I know a place -- you can go out there and throw a match, and it will flare up on you. They tell you not to drink the water."

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