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19 Elk Reported Dead in Utah, Officials Point to Plant Poisoning

By Caitlin Berard,

(Photo by kyletperry via Getty Images)

Nineteen elk were found dead throughout the town of Mapleton, Utah, over the span of six days, and the local yew plant may be to blame, per wildlife officials.

The deceased elk, located on the east bench of Mapleton, were found between January 21 and 27. The grisly discovery sparked an investigation from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Following the investigation, officials revealed that they believe a popular piece of landscape decor – the yew plant – was the cause. Though beautiful, the yew plant is poisonous to elk and many other animals, including humans.

The exact location in which the elk fed on the toxic plants remains unknown. Initial lab results, however, concluded that all of the animals had yew in their stomachs at their time of death.

According to DWR, elk have been coming down a lot further this year than is typical for the migratory animals. Moose and cougars have been spotted in residential areas in unusual numbers over the past several weeks as well.

“A lot of our elk are coming down right now[…] because of the deep snow,” Scott Root with the DWR explained to ABC4. “When you’re elk and you get down this low to get out of the snow, you might feed on different plants that people have planted.”

How Poisonous is the Yew Plant That Killed the Utah Elk?

The yew plant isn’t native to the state of Utah. The Japanese and European yews, however, are popular choices for yard decor. Many purchase the shrub-like plant for their landscaping without realizing it’s extremely toxic to both animals and humans.

“It’s a bad little plant that people have been planting in their yards for years because it’s pretty. It’s got a really interesting yellow flower,” Root said. “But what they don’t realize is the sap from that plant if it gets rubbed in your eyes can blind you, and give you a terrible rash.”

The only part of the yew plant that isn’t poisonous, in fact, is the red berry known as an aril. Eating even a small quantity of leaves can be fatal for both animals and humans.

Yew leaves contain alkaloids called taxines, which are absorbed quickly by the body. Once they enter the bloodstream, taxines can cause cardiac failure, cardiac arrest, or respiratory failure, leading to death within hours of ingestion.

Despite this horrific tragedy, DWR officials hope that it can act as a warning for the future. “I’d like to think there’s a silver lining to this. We can now do the research and we’re all starting to learn about this plant and other plants that can be toxic,” Root said. “And if we’re going to plan some landscaping, we can plan some more wildlife-friendly landscaping.”

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