From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 3, Number 48 - February 26, 2004
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Dead elk count at 193

by Cat Urbigkit

The mysterious deaths of approximately 193 elk southwest of Rawlins are under investigation by officials from the Wyoming State Vet Lab and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

The discovery of dead and dying elk was initially reported to the department on Feb. 8 when a coyote hunter found two elk approximately 15 miles from Rawlins that were alive, but unable to move. Since that time, officials have found dozens of dead and dying elk using an airplane and combing the area on foot and using four-wheelers.

All of the elk exhibit similar symptoms, particularly the inability to move.

"They are alert, but they just have no strength," said Kent Schmidlin, Lander region wildlife supervisor. "When we find them, they are lying down on the ground, but they can't get up, almost like they are paralyzed in their lower extremities."

A veterinarian from the state's research lab, as well as a toxicologist and a pathologist, are working to determine what is causing the die-off. The elk, which are mostly prime breeding-age cows, are all in good condition and there is no evidence that they have been harassed or run until xhaustion. Nor can the deaths be blamed on Mother Nature.

Of the 193 elk discovered so far, only five were bulls while the rest were cows and calves. The bulls found had either three spikes or two-branch antlers.

"This time of year, bulls run in bachelor bands," said WG&F spokesman Tom Reed. The lack of afflicted bulls, he added, "might indicate that either we haven't found mature bulls yet or that because they are running in different areas, maybe they weren't exposed to whatever is bothering these other elk."

"It's a pretty light winter out there," said Schmidlin. A herd of about 600 elk nearby appears healthy and unaffected, he added.

About 10 of the dead elk are being analyzed in the state vet lab to determine the cause of death and all avenues, including disease, poison and other factors are being explored. Tissues from 10 elk are now being analyzed in the state veterinary laboratory to determine the cause of death. Prior to harvesting, the affected animals were found alert but unable to move and exhibiting muscle lesions and edema.

WG&F officials are closely monitoring the situation and expect some preliminary lab results early next week.

"Right now, we are asking folks to stay out of the area so we can do our investigation and find out what is killing these elk," said Joe Nemick, the lead wildlife biologist in the region. The dying elk are scattered over a 10-15 square mile area in elk hunting unit 108.

Students in a wildlife diseases class at the University of Wyoming accompanied Department of Veterinary Sciences faculty and staff members and WG&F personnel to collect blood samples and perform necropsies on some of the downed animals.

"It's big," says UW Toxicology Professor Merl Raisbeck of the sudden die-off. Both he and WGFD officials say it is unusual to see such a large loss of elk at one time.

Walt Cook, a WGFD veterinarian, is leading the diagnostic investigation with support from the state laboratory in Laramie.

Raisbeck and Assistant Professor Todd Cornish are testing tissues, blood and environmental samples to look for clues. "Preliminary data doesn't point to an infectious disease," Raisbeck says. "We are thinking toxins, but none is showing up so far. These are early days in the investigation."

Kari Kontour, a senior pre-veterinary major from Casper, was one of several UW students in Professor Beth Williams's wildlife diseases class who visited the site to perform hands-on research on three of the downed animals.

"The elk were alert and could see us but were weak and couldn't get up," Kontour reports. "There were divots on the ground like snow angels showing that they were trying to kick and move."

The student says she and the other observers could see some muscle lesions in the hind legs of the first elk necropsied. A second elk had an accumulation of gel-like fluid under parts of its skin.

Although Kontour has performed necropsies before on severely rotten animals, she says this is the first time she has participated in fresh field examinations. "It was interesting to see the post-mortem tissue," she says. "I learned a lot about anatomy, too."

Kontour appreciates the fact that Cornish used students as part of the field investigation team and says she will go back to the scene if another trip is organized.

"It was sad to see the animals out there, but it was a great learning experience," she adds.

"We're exploring all of the options and waiting for results from the state veterinary laboratory," Reed says. "This is unusual and baffling right at the moment."

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