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23.3.04

Elk Testing

Elk Deaths In Wyoming Blamed On Native Plant

A lichen native to the Rockies is to blame for the deaths this winter of at least 300 elk in southern Wyoming, a die-off that had baffled wildlife scientists and cost the state thousands of dollars, officials said Monday.

... Elk native to the area weren't affected by the acid [produced by the lichen after it is eaten], but those killed in the die-off apparently had moved in from Colorado and may have lacked microorganisms needed to neutralize the acid, state biologists said. The Colorado line is 50 miles south of where the elk died.

"Elk are incredibly adaptable, tough animals," Game and Fish spokesman Tom Reed said. "They'll get by on thin rations, and they'll make do somehow. But this year, nearly 300 of them paid the price for that adaptability."


Shouldn't that be "they paid the price for not being quite adaptable enough"? After all, the microorganisms that the local elk had were an adaptation that the newcomers lacked. Had the newcomers been less adaptable, they still would have died -- it would just have been from starvation on their old range rather than from lichen poisoning on their new range. On the other hand, the three elk that died from the Game and Fish Department's test to see if the lichen was responsible did pay the price for the other elk's adaptability, since if they had starved it would have been obvious and there would have been no need to test. I suppose you might want to say they paid the price for their comrades' adaptability plus our ignorance and desire to find out what was going on (though if the die-off had turned out to be anthropogenic, many more elk might have died from our decision not to test).

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