Dead elk pile up in Utah town. Could a popular landscaping plant be responsible?

When elk started turning up dead in a Utah town, conservation officers rushed to determine what could be killing them.

It started Jan. 21 with reports of only a couple of dead elk in Mapleton, about 50 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Officers couldn’t find any “obvious” signs of how or why the elk died, Utah Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Faith Jolley told McClatchy News.

Two days later, reports came in about another pair of dead elk in the same area. When conservation officers investigated, they found five more dead elk nearby, Jolley said.

Although one of the elk had blood coming from its nose, officers again didn’t find any obvious causes of death.

Since then, a total of 19 elk have turned up dead in that area, Jolley said. Several herds of elk are living nearby with 80 to 100 elk in each herd.

Although it isn’t the same herd that rushed along the freeway in Salt Lake City in late January, conservation officers believe the state’s excessive snow may have depleted regular food sources, causing elk and other wildlife to venture from the mountains and into urban areas in search of food.

That could be what happened in the puzzling deaths. Diagnostic tests done on three of the dead elk in Mapleton revealed the animals had ingested what looked like a species of yew plant, Jolley said.

“Yew plant is a common ornamental shrub-like plant used in landscaping,” conservation outreach manager Scott Root told KSL5. “But it’s also very toxic to animals.”

Root told the station he’s “never seen this with the yew plant” in his 32 years with the department’s Division of Wildlife Resources.

“This year has been a little different because of all the deep snow, and they’re coming down and they’re probably trying plants that they don’t typically consume because they’re coming down to town,” he told the station.

The department’s biologists plan to test more of the elk to confirm their causes of death.

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