Are Yew Plants Killing Elk in Utah?

Since January, elk have been mysteriously dying in Utah, baffling wildlife officials there as to the cause. Now the big question is could a popular landscaping plant be responsible for the spate of deaths?

It started with a couple of elk that died in Mapleton, about 50 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Conservation officials couldn’t determine any obvious signs of how or why the animals died, Utah Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Faith Jolley stated.

Two days passed when reports of another pair of deceased elk in the same area arose. When officers arrived to investigate, they found five more of the animals lying dead nearby, Jolley added.

bull elk
Photo: Pixabay/MemoryCatcher

North American Elk Herds

During the investigation, it was revealed that one of the elk had blood spilling from its nose, but officers weren’t able to determine any outward causes of death. All told, 19 elk have died in the area since then. Conservation officers feel the state’s excessive snow this winter may have diminished normal food supplies, causing the elk and other forms of wildlife to emerge from the mountains and travel down into urban areas in search of other nutrition sources.

yew plant
Photo: Pixabay/Peggychoucair

Yew Plants

And there’s a possibility that extreme weather could indeed be what’s behind the puzzling deaths. As it happens, diagnostic tests performed on three of the deceased elk discovered in Mapleton revealed that the herbivores had ingested what appeared to be a species of yew plant, Jolley noted.

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

young elk
Photo: Pixabay/iTopLoveliness

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

Root informed 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.” The department’s biologists planned on testing more of the elks’ remains to confirm their causes of death.

Until then, nothing can be confirmed definitively, of course. If the demise of these splendid animals does turn out to be from the consumption of ornamental yew plants, landscaping practices may need to be reviewed in the area to avoid future deaths.

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