Tough old bull

By Dick Mason, The Observer January 27, 2012 09:12 pm

Analysis by Montana lab finds ailing elk that wandered La Grande's streets last winter before being euthanized was 14-years-old 

A year ago this  elk had people in La Grande buzzing — and worried.

Information just released by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife indicates that their apprehension was justified.   

It concerns a bull elk that  was wandering the streets of La Grande.

This behavior was abnormal, said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Leonard Erickson.

"Normally elk don't get close to people. Something was wrong.''

The elk was not only getting close to people, it was acting oddly in other ways. A motorist reported in early February that it was standing one night in the middle of a road near Grande Ronde Hospital. When people got near the bull, it would grind its teeth, an aggressive behavior for elk.

"This can be interpreted as a display of anger or agitation,'' Erickson said. "When elk display this behavior, they may feel like they are backed against a wall.'' 

The biologist noted that elk often false charge for two or  three steps after grinding their teeth. The bull elk in downtown La Grande was not yet doing this. But it may have been just a matter of time before it did.

The animal, which was attracting onlookers, was clearly a threat to public safety. The  ODFW responded by euthanizing it on Feb. 3. The ODFW did so after local biologists  contacted their agency's veterinarian in Corvallis, who recommended putting the animal down. 

The elk, after being euthanized, was found to be in poor condition. Its problems included a chronic hip infection, abnormal hair loss and an almost total absence of lower front teeth.

"He had almost no incisors,'' Erickson said.

The absence of these teeth made it difficult for the elk to graze on grass or eat other forage. The teeth had been almost completely worn away, one reason ODFW biologists suspected a year ago that the elk was quite old.

It turns out that the biologists were right.

An analysis of one of the elk's remaining teeth indicates that the bull was 14 years old, according to Richard Green of the ODFW's Wildlife Population Lab  in Corvallis. The lab sent the tooth to Mattson's Laboratory of Milltown, Mont., which determined that the elk was 14.

Fourteen is extremely old for a bull elk, especially one in the wild. Green said that since he started working at the Wildlife Population Lab in 1993 its staff has processed only one older bull elk, one which was 16.

The oldest female elk handled by the lab since 1993 was at least 25 years old.

The oldest female deer handled at the lab since 1993 was at least 22 and the oldest buck deer was at least 15.

Green believes that male elk and deer do not live as long as females for two reasons. The stress of the rut takes a greater toll on males, and state tag limits allow more males to be harvested by hunters.

Green said that his lab processes the teeth of 10,000 animals a year, the bulk of which are from elk,  deer, cougars, bears and bobcats. These teeth are sent to Mattson's  Laboratory to be aged. The information the Wildlife Population Lab receives on the ages of wildlife is used by ODFW biologists to help them manage wildlife populations in Oregon.