Smuggled elk poses a mystery for Montana wildlife officials

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — It reads like a forensic crime drama - and in a very real sense it is.

A Montana game warden learns of an unusual elk shot along the Rocky Mountain Front. The animal has physical peculiarities unlike anything the department has seen before. Genetic testing reveals that the young bull is of an exotic sub-species, and that it came from a herd more than 600 miles from where it was shot.

How did it get here? Who released it into the wild? What would have happened had the bull lived, intermingling for years with Montana's native elk population?

When a new disease appears in humans, pathologists make every effort to identify 'Patient Zero' - the first person to become infected with the new pathogen. Finding patient zero is important because knowing that person's history can help to determine how and when the outbreak started.

This unusual two-year-old elk harvested 16 months ago in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains is FWP's “Elk Zero.”

"It wasn’t just an elk," remarked Dave Holland, game warden captain for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to the Great Falls Tribune. “It had the ability to be an ecological disaster.”

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The elk with florescent antlers

On Oct. 20, 2018, a 'spike' bull elk was legally harvested north of Choteau. The hunter didn't immediately notice anything unusual about the animal, and took it to a wild game processor to have it butchered. It was there that things began to get interesting.

According to Holland, when the hunter returned to check on his order the processor asked him what the deal was with the elk's antlers. The bull's spikes had been painted orange, but the hunter hadn't noticed because he is color blind.

The elk's florescent antlers weren't its only unusual feature. When Warden Ron Duty inspected the animal's carcass he discovered it had been castrated. Duty began asking people around Choteau if they'd ever seen the elk, or knew who was responsible for it.

“People had videos of this elk," Holland recalled. "It would walk right up to people. Obviously, humans had been interacting with this elk, probably since it was a calf."

Some of the locals had even given it a name - "Buford" - but no one claimed responsibility, nor claimed to know its origin.

The possibility that the elk had somehow escaped or been released from a regional game farm was also explored, but there was no record of a missing animal, something that would have almost surely existed had it been raised in commercial captivity.

“Game farms are highly regulated," Holland noted. "They have to be fenced. All the animals have to be documented, and when they're harvested they have to be inspected.”

FWP's interest in the case was motivated by more than simply idle curiosity about an unusual domesticated elk. Not knowing where Elk Zero came from, or whether it was just one member of a larger group of introduced elk, could have serious animal health implications.

“The importation of any animal brings with it a full community of parasites and pathogens," explained Emily Almberg, disease ecologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Some things might be pretty benign, but there are things that we worry about that might be difficult to detect just by looking at an animal.”

Chronic wasting disease, bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis are all diseases carried by elk, and which can be transmitted by them to other animals - in some cases to livestock. Not knowing where Elk Zero had come from or what it had been exposed to was a serious consideration.

Yet, no one in the Choteau area seemed to know - or would claim to know very much about it. There were, however, two individuals more directly connected to Elk Zero than the rest of the community.

FWP investigators were able to prove that two people from Choteau had been feeding the elk, which is a violation of state law.

In Montana it's a misdemeanor offense to attract wildlife of any type with food or other attractants like salt licks; the lone exception being the recreational feeding of birds. Violators face potential penalties of up to a $1,000 fine, six months in jail and a loss of their hunting, fishing, or trapping privileges.

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Why feeding wildlife is a crime

Many Montanans feel a strong urge, born in compassion, to feed wild animals that appear to be struggling. Not only is feeding wildlife illegal, its also a bad idea.

“People have the impression that wildlife need help; that we have to feed them to get them through the winter," said Game Warden Captain Dave Holland. "But when you put out an attractant like salt or food, you start unnaturally congregating the animals, which will help spread disease."

A recent example of this is the rapid spread of chronic wasting disease in deer congregating in and around Libby. The fatal neurological disease was unknown west of the continental divide until the spring of 2019, when a single white-tailed deer in Libby tested positive for the disease.

Since then more than 60 deer in the area have tested positive for CWD, many of them congregated in areas where people were actively feeding deer.

Feeding wildlife also habituates them to human food sources making it more likely they will be unable to survive on their own.

“You’re actually doing them a disservice because if they don’t learn how to forage for themselves they’re not going to survive after you’ve stopped feeding them," Holland notes. "It can’t go on forever."

“Most wildlife has evolved without humans helping them," he added. "They’ve got it figured out. They know how to survive. We don't find salt blocks in nature."

Holland said the residents were cited for feeding the elk, but repeatedly and adamantly denied having anything to do with his presence in Choteau, or to knowing who did.

"We are not saying they introduced the animal," Holland emphasized. “We were able to prove they fed the animal, which is a violation of (Montana law.)”

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Potential impact of introduction

FWP officials were at a dead end, but there remained one possible avenue of investigation.

“There was this rumor around the community that possibly this elk could have been brought to Montana from Washington," Holland said.

Holland contacted his counterpart with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to see if was possible to connect Elk Zero with a herd in that state.

The possibility that Elk Zero was transported to the Choteau area from out of state added another layer of concern. Montana's elk herd belongs to a unique genetic subspecies identified as Rocky Mountain elk, which are prized by hunters for their large antlers. Those roaming the temperate forests of western Washington are Roosevelt elk, which have larger bodies, are slightly darker in color and have smaller antlers.

Despite the fact that Elk Zero had been castrated, the presence of a free-roaming bull elk, from a different subspecies and just reaching its sexual maturity, caused alarm among some wildlife managers.

“If you start intertwining those populations (Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain) they lose the characteristics that made them distinct," Holland explained. "You run the risk of losing a distinct sub-species."

Almberg said its an open question whether the introduction of a single animal would make a meaningful genetic contribution, to the point where it would have any irreversible effects on the native herd. However, she does agree that cross-breeding between subspecies can result in a negative outcome for the species as a whole.

"If you mix distinct sub-species you have the potential of losing the genetics that control local adaptation," Almberg said. “There is something called 'out breeding depression' where you see the decreased fitness of offspring when you cross those different subspecies, so lower reproductive output.”

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Finding the origin

Unlike Montana, Washington state has compiled a comprehensive genetic database of its elk herds. Wildlife geneticists there have identified 10 herds, which may intermingle at times, but maintain distinct genetic profiles.

However, submitting a single tissue sample from Elk Zero would not be enough to veritably identify it as a member of one of Washington's herds. Wildlife managers would need to obtain multiple samples collected from a variety of elk within the Choteau area to compare with the DNA profiles cataloged by Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife.

During the remaining months of the 2018 hunting season and throughout the 2019 hunting season, FWP biologists and wardens collected 10 distinct tissue samples from elk harvested in the Choteau and Augusta areas. Along with a sample previously collected from Elk Zero, they were sent to Washington's molecular genetics laboratory in Olympia for DNA analysis.

"Using Washington state elk reference baselines, the unknown elk 1 (Elk Zero) genetically assigned to the Washington State Yakima elk herd with a positive probability of 99.98%," the lab results reported.

In other words, within a minute fraction of statistical probability, DNA testing had proven that the elk had been taken from a herd in southwest Washington; probably as a calf, and was transported to Montana where it was then released. FWP finally knew where Elk Zero had come from, but knowing that raised another concern.

Beginning in 2008, wildlife managers in Washington began receiving reports of elk with deformed, broken or missing hooves. The condition has now been identified as elk hoof disease, a bacterial infection that eventually cripples the animal, and which has now spread to parts of Oregon and Idaho.

"The disease appears to be highly infectious among elk, but there is no evidence that it affects humans," a report from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife states. "Currently there is no vaccine to prevent the disease, nor are there any proven options for treating it in the field."

Elk Zero tested negative for hoof disease, but keeping it out of Montana is a primary concern for herd managers.

"That lameness, the severe inflammation of hooves can cause ... a deterioration of body condition," Almberg said of the impacts of elk hoof disease. "They have a harder time moving around, they have a harder time feeding and keeping up with the herd. Those things can all contribute to lower survival."

"This hoof disease is a major issue impacting their elk herd," Holland added. “We don’t have it in Montana yet and we don’t want it.”

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‘Who knows what the consequences would have been’

At this point it appears that the illegal theft and release of Elk Zero had no impact on Montana's elk population, but that was solely due to dumb luck.

Holland acknowledges that whoever brought the animal to Montana probably didn't understand the ramifications of what they were doing, but the consequences could have been just as detrimental no matter the person's intentions.

With nearly 17 years of service as a game warden, Holland said he's never experienced anything quite like Elk Zero.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen a large mammal moved from one state to another and released," he said. “I’ve been involved in removing fawns from houses where they were kept in the kids’ bedrooms, or they’re being raised as pets, but that’s usually local – people out walking locally and they’ll bring an animal home. This is a whole different level. They literally went out and found an elk in Washington, put it in a trailer, drove it to Montana and let it go."

“As an agency we move wildlife, but its highly regulated," Holland added. "We’ll spend years planning for and getting ready to move wildlife. If somebody just willy-nilly picks a calf elk up, throws it in a horse trailer and drives it to Montana – they’re not thinking about hoof disease or CWD or the genetic aspects. That’s where this can become very dangerous to wildlife populations."

FWP District Supervisor, Gary Bertellotti, put the case of Elk Zero into the broader context of invasive species across the U.S. - a problem becoming increasingly critical in Montana.

"Quagga mussels, CWD, feral pigs, lake trout - we can see what the impacts are by looking at other things going on," Bertellotti said. "In all of those cases it was because somebody transported something. They all started with one person."

“We don’t know what that would be. We’ve never had to deal with that," Bertellotti said of the implications, had Elk Zero been left fertile and undiscovered. “Roosevelt elk may not be as compatible with the habitat and the weather systems we have here. If those genetics start to become more prevalent ... all of a sudden you could see that population not surviving as well as it should. It could have been anything from more susceptibility to diseases to the viability of the species. Who knows what the consequences would have been."

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Closing the case

While a portion of the mystery surrounding Elk Zero has been solved, the investigation into who is responsible for taking the elk from Washington and releasing him in Montana is ongoing. Wardens in both states continue to ask questions.

“What we really want to know is who brought it here," Holland said. “We have a strong theory that it came from Enumclaw (a city roughly 30 miles east of Tacoma). We've developed the theory that it came from that area based upon information other than the genetics. We want contact with anybody with knowledge of how the animal arrived in Montana alive and who released it.”

Just as with any crime drama, investigators hope someone will come forth with information regarding Elk Zero that will ultimately lead to an arrest.

Montana FWP maintains a confidential, toll-free hotline where people can report violations of fish, wildlife or park regulations. Since its establishment in 1985, TIP-MONT has received reports resulting in 1,521 convictions. To report a fish, wildlife or park violation call 1-800-TIP-MONT (1-800-847-6668). Callers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward of up to $1,000. Nearly $155,000 in TIP-MONT rewards have been paid to citizens since the program was established.

“I believe that there are people in Washington who have information about where this elk came from," Holland said. “I believe there’s people here in Montana who also know that. If they come forward with information that helps us find answers to this, then yes, absolutely there’s going to be a TIP-MONT reward."