Researchers to Answer Questions in Last Winter Elk Die-Off

Send by email Printer-friendly version Share this

Four months following the discovery of elk unable to get up on their legs finds researchers pursuing unanswered questions that still surround the die-off that claimed an estimated 450 elk in the sagebrush habitat 15 miles southwest of Rawlins.

The late March discovery that a lichen eaten by the elk robbed the animals of their leg strength and coordination opened up a set of secondary questions about the unprecedented die-off.

Although confident the lichen was the culprit, researchers are still left wondering: “What were the conditions unique to 2004 that triggered the outbreak?” “Was the lichen, commonly eaten by elk, particularly toxic this year or was it an unusual volume consumed that caused the reaction?” “Why was the malady limited to elk?”

Dr. Merl Raisbeck of the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory has requested funding to test the lichen’s effects on sheep. He hopes to identify the specific compound in the lichen that is toxic. The 1950s textbook that alerted researchers to the lichen, stated the organism was potentially toxic to sheep and cattle. The laboratory hopes to research sheep because the animals are smaller than cattle and more research can be conducted in a limited space.

Walt Cook, the Game and Fish Department veterinarian who coordinated the initial investigation, said antelope feces from the die-off area on the G&F’s Red Rim/Daley Habitat Area will be analyzed. He wants to find out if antelope were eating the lichen and if so if they metabolized it differently so it is not toxic.

Cook adds researchers also hope to collect more lichen this winter and compare its chemical make-up to last winter’s growth that caused the die-off.

“Some plants concentrate toxins during specific climate conditions, and we hope to find out over time if that may be the case with this lichen, too,” he said.

Cook said the G&F will announce findings as research is conducted over upcoming months. “I just hope we don’t have to announce any more major die-offs,” he said.