RAWLINS, Wyo. (AP) — The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is investigating whether three sick elk euthanized because of their poor condition near Rawlins may have been afflicted with lichen toxicosis.
The Wyoming State Wildlife Veterinary Lab will provide an analysis of the elk once an autopsy is conducted.
"There is a lot of different lichen in the world and in Wyoming," Rawlins Game Warden Teal Joseph said. "This particular lichen likes to grow and is abundant in desert soil and is found throughout the state, not just in the Red Desert country."
A variety called tumbleweed lichen is responsible for causing health issues for some Wyoming elk, Joseph told the Rawlins Daily Times (http://bit.ly/1HWtMz3).
Tumbleweed lichen is found throughout the Rocky Mountain region and was incriminated in the poisoning of cattle and sheep in Wyoming during the 1930s, with more than 70 years passing before another case was reported.
Wyoming has seen large deaths from lichen toxicosis in recent years.
During the winters of 2004 and 2008 combined, more than 500 elk died from lichen toxicosis in the Red Rim area. An isolated death in 2012 occurred when a cow elk was found northwest of Wamsutter exhibiting the signs of the poisoning — lying down, alert, but unable to stand.
"It's strange in the sense that every so often, it causes an issue with localized groups of elk even though this lichen is widespread in Wyoming," Joseph said. "It's tough to say at what point the elk ate it and at what point it started to affect them. It's a pretty quick onset we think, but to narrow down whether it's minutes or hours, or a day or so, it's tough to say."
There are other unknowns associated the tumbleweed lichen, including why symptoms of toxicosis is only found in the Red Desert and if affected elk are safe to eat.
However, Sinclair Biologist Greg Hiatt warns against human consumption of potentially affected elk.
"We don't know if it's safe," Hiatt said.
Game and Fish officials are asking the public to report all suspected cases of toxicosis to assist in expanding the body of knowledge of what is taking place in southern Wyoming.
"We ask people not to approach these elk, but to continue to report any elk that appear to be sick and unable to stand . so that we can continue our research on what is happening," Lander Regional Wildlife Supervisor Jason Hunter said.
Information from: Rawlins (Wyo.) Daily Times, http://www.rawlinstimes.com