In August of 2013, more than 100 elk were found dead on a range to the north of Las Vegas. They are believed to have all died within a 24 hour period. The mysterious deaths have left the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish baffled over what caused the animals to die.
The death of livestock is not in itself a rare occurrence. Poachers, predators, disease, toxins, starvation, drought, heat and even lightening can wipe out herds of animals. Wildlife officials have, however, dismissed these possibilities.
Anthrax poisoning, which occurs following ingestion of the organism, was suspected as causing the deaths. In 2000, more than 150 livestock animals in North Dakota died of anthrax. The bacteria also exists naturally in the New Mexico region.
However, according to a report in Live Science, tests for anthrax came back negative. (1)
Pesticides have also been responsible for killing livestock. Cattle will eat grass that has been sprayed with pesticides such as calcium arsenate powder and liquid arsenate herbicide. These substances are highly toxic to livestock. If arsenic is ingested, it can damage small blood vessels, which affects the blood supply to the major organs, as stated by the LSU AGCenter. (2)
There does, however, seem to be no evidence of any pesticide use in the area and officials have ruled out the use of heavy pesticides as being the reason for the mass killings.
Is the Weather to Blame?
Thunderstorms and lightning are a common occurrence in the New Mexico area, particularly during the summer months. In fact, according to the Severe Weather Climatology for New Mexico report, because the state has one of the highest storm frequencies in the United States, it has the highest lightning fatalities per capita in the US. (3)
Lighting does represent a significant hazard to large animals and the natural world and, given the frequency of lightning in the area, death by lightning was another slim possibility. However, this premise was ruled out by officials at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish primarily because it would be highly unlikely that lightning strikes would lead to the deaths of 100 animals.
Contamination and Disease as Possible Causes
Contaminated well water is another possible cause of the mystery deaths but no toxins have been identified in the water. An unidentified disease has also been mentioned as being a potential cause but has also been dubbed as being unlikely due to the implausibility that so many animals would all die so quickly.
Another possible culprit is Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD), which is carried by insect bites.
“With EHD, an elk could get a fever. It’s usually a pretty fast illness, and up to eight to 36 hours later the animals go into shock, and then they die,” said Rachel Shockley, spokesperson for New Mexico Game and Fish department. (4)
Theories and Other Examples of Sudden Animal Deaths
This is not the first time large groups of livestock have simultaneously died and the cause of the deaths is unconfirmed and remains a mystery.
In the 1980s, a mysterious wasting disease killed 280 cattle on a farm near the Dry Run Landfill in West Virginia. The incident eventually led to a Class Action lawsuit against DuPont, a US chemical company. DuPont was blamed for contaminating the drinking water supplies at the farm with C8.
The contamination was said to have originated from the DuPont Washington Works facility in Wood County. According to the Fluoride Action Network Pesticide Project, the farmers sued DuPont for the death of their cattle and the ill health of their family and farm workers.
The cause of death was never conclusively associated with the chemical contamination of drinking water stemming from the DuPont facility. The company did settle for an “undisclosed amount” in light of the allegations. (5)
In 2010, a more fantastical theory was pinned as the cause of deaths of more than 300 goats in rural Mexico. Shepherds and ranchers in the area were convinced that el chupacabra – goat sucker in Spanish – a Hispanic vampire beast was responsible for the livestock killings.
“Shepherds in Puebla State are frightened by the attacks on their flocks by either the chupacabra, wild dogs or some other wild creature that they’ve been unable to hunt down, and which has caused the deaths of over 300 goats for some 50 days,” reporter Pedro Morales noted in a report. (6)
As for the fated elks, EHD seems like the most probable cause. As Rachel Shockley says, EHD is most dangerous at this time of the year when temperatures are hot and the animals stay close together at water supplies.
Both water samples from the streams and creeks and tissue samples have been sent off for testing. Until EHD has been confirmed, the death of so many elk in a 75,000-acre ranch remains a mystery.
References & Image Credits:
(1) Live Science
(2) LSU AgCenter
(3) Severe Weather Climatology for New Mexico
(4) Raw Story
(5) Fluoride Action Network Pesticide Project
(6) Live Science
(7) digitalART2 via photopin cc
(8) New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish