Elk Have Moved Out of Red Rim Area

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The number of elk afflicted by a strange malady near here seem to have leveled off, thanks in part to winter leaving this high desert basin.

“In the last week or so, the elk have moved off to the south,” said Greg Hiatt, Rawlins regional wildlife biologist. “We’ve got radio collars on three healthy cows and we’re going to be monitoring their movements for quite some time to learn more about the herd and where it goes.”

Healthy elk that were wintering on the Daley Ranch southwest of here are now following the receding snowline back toward the Sierra Madre mountains. Last month, several hundred elk perished from a mysterious malady on the ranch and wildlife officials are working hard to learn why.

The mysterious deaths of 295 elk are still under investigation by officials from the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. On Feb. 8, two downed cow elk were discovered that could not rise and run when approached by agency personnel. As field crews searched the area in subsequent days, the number of elk afflicted slowly increased to the current number, scattered over a 50 square mile area of high desert. All exhibited the same symptoms: inability to rise from the ground, while remaining alert and vocal. Elk that were not found and euthanized by agency personnel died a slow, stressful death from starvation or dehydration.

Currently, department veterinarians are exploring a number of possibilities that could be the cause of the ailment, including possible poisonous plants such as a ground lichen known as Parmelia. Also on this list are a number of other toxins, as well as a muscular weakness due to over-stress. All possible causes are being explored and the results could be weeks away. Many other possibilities including bacterial or viral causes, and mineral or vitamin deficiencies have been ruled out. There is no evidence that suggests that whatever is affecting the elk could be a threat to humans.

“This syndrome is strictly limited to elk,” said Dr. Walt Cook of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “None of the deer, pronghorn, cattle, horses or scavengers are affected. This is a species-specific affliction and it seems very unlikely that it could pose a threat to human health. In addition, personnel from the Wyoming State Vet Lab and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and others have very close contact with these animals and have suffered no ill effects.”

There is also no indication that the elk, once afflicted, can recover. All four of the debilitated elk that were taken to the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory in Laramie did not recover, despite treatments and excellent care. The last of those elk, a cow, was euthanized on Wednesday after being down for a total of 17 days.

Meanwhile, the scavengers of the Red Rim area are dining well, particularly ravens, crows and coyotes. The carcasses are widely scattered over wide-open sagebrush country.

“At this point and after receiving information that the cause is not contagious from a human or animal standpoint, we are going to let Mother Nature’s janitors clean up the carcasses out there,” said Kent Schmidlin, Lander regional wildlife supervisor. “Predators and scavengers have quite a job ahead of them but if big raptors move into the area, it will speed up the process.”

Both golden and bald eagles migrate through the area in the coming month and the carcasses will provide an important food source for these majestic birds.