The lichen suspected of causing the deaths of 295 elk in Wyoming can be found throughout Moffat County, but Colorado Division of Wildlife officers say they aren't worried elk will start dying here.
Bruce Johnston, Moffat County weed management specialist, said he has seen the light green lichen, known as Parmelia, in different locations around the county, though he couldn't pinpoint them. He said he's never seen elk eat the lichen before.
"From our standpoint, it's a flukey deal," said Tyler Baskfield, DOW public relations specialist. "We're not worried at this point."
On Feb. 8, two cow elk were found in the desert 15 miles southwest of Rawlins, Wyo., about 75 miles north of Craig. According to Wyoming Game and Fish Department reports, the cows could not rise and run when agency personnel approached them.
In the following days, as field crews searched the area, the number of afflicted elk continued to increase, until 295 sick elk had been found across a 50 square mile area of high desert in and around the department's wildlife habitat area.
All the elk were awake and alert, but they were unable to rise from the ground. Department agents euthanized the elk they found. Others died slow deaths from dehydration or starvation.
Scientists found Parmelia in the stomachs of the sick elk, and they have since determined that the lichen produces an acid that breaks down muscle tissue, causing the elk to lose strength.
Although Parmelia has been identified as the cause of the sudden sickness, many questions still remain.
"There are a lot of factors we'll need to look at," said Tom Reed, spokesperson for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "Do elk eat this lichen in normal years? If so, why hasn't this happened before? Does a long drought history weigh in somehow?"
"There's a lot we don't know about the lichen," Walt Cook, a veterinarian with Game and Fish, said in a press release. "We don't know if Parmelia from this area concentrated unusually high levels of acid this year due to drought. Also, we don't know if these elk were simply not used to eating lichen and therefore couldn't handle it."
The Red Desert, where the sick elk were found, is a brutal habitat, Baskfield said. He speculated that because of the drought the elk may have eaten unusually large quantities of the lichen, resulting in illness.
Jerry Ellenberger, the Colorado DOW's big game manager, said he isn't familiar with the distribution of Parmelia in Northwest Colorado. But if elk here were to start eating the lichen for whatever reason, there is little the DOW could do about it.
"They're free ranging and foraging on their own," Ellenberger said. "The ability to control what they're foraging on is limited."
Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at email@example.com.