RAWLINS – Laboratory tests and analysis have conclusively ruled out several causes, including chronic wasting disease, some insecticides and a variety of metals, in the mysterious deaths of elk southwest of Rawlins. Through Thursday afternoon, Feb. 26, the death total had grown to 275.
The work being done by the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory and Game and Fish Department has also eliminated poisoning from salt, nitrates and sulfates.
“There are still many potential causes to investigate,” said Walt Cook, G&F wildlife veterinarian. “We are all working feverishly, so we can identify the cause and hopefully address the situation in the field to keep more elk from dying.”
Some outside laboratories, with specific capabilities in potential causes, are also being contracted to help with the project.
The WSVL has also eliminated bacterial and common viral infections, tick paralysis and meningeal and carotid artery worm as causes. In addition the lab has ruled out lead and mercury poisoning, selenium toxicity and many of the common plant toxins.
“Toxins of some sort still seem to be the most likely cause, but every possible cause is being examined,” Cook said. “Preliminary tests on four water sources have not revealed anything that would cause these signs in elk.”
All of the elk exhibit similar signs, particularly the inability to move. Some animals have lesions on their hind leg muscles, but veterinarians believe the sore muscles are the result of being down for extended periods.
If suitable animals are located, the G&F is going to attempt to transport some ailing elk to the state vet lab for treatments not practical in the field.
The discovery of 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 searching the area on foot and four-wheelers.
“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.”
About ten of the dead elk are being analyzed in the state vet lab to determine the cause of death and all avenues are being explored. Tissue, rumen, plant, soil and water samples have been taken to try to explain the bizarre die-off.