SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The deaths of more than 100 elk in northeastern New Mexico were likely caused by drinking water that contained toxic algae, state wildlife officials said Tuesday.
Biologists with the New Mexico Game and Fish Department collected tissue samples from the elk and water samples from private land north of Las Vegas where the animals were found in late August.
Laboratory tests revealed that a water sample contained Anabaena, a form of naturally occurring blue-green algae capable of producing a neurotoxin that can cause illness and death within hours if ingested.
“Based on circumstantial evidence, the most logical explanation for the elk deaths is that on their way back to the forest after feeding in the grassland, the elk drank water from a trough containing toxins created by blue-green algae or cyanobacteria,” said Kerry Mower, the department’s wildlife disease specialist.
The dead elk were reported Aug. 27 by a hunter that found them scattered across less than one square mile on the Buena Vista Ranch. Biologists suspect the animals died within the same-24-hour period.
The elk showed signs of struggling, a symptom consistent with poisoning from a neurotoxin.
Wildlife officials said that although some types of microscopic blue-green algae produce toxins, they seldom cause serious problems.
During warm weather, algae can reproduce quickly in standing water, creating a bloom that releases neurotoxins into the water. Officials said the conditions resulting in the elk deaths existed only a short period of time.
The department said it investigated a variety of possible causes for the deaths and ruled out anthrax, epizootic hemorrhagic disease, botulism, lightning and poaching.
Officials said Tuesday no one has reported any dead livestock or wildlife in the area since August. They also suggested that hunters should not harvest animals that are behaving unusually or appear sick.