Ten elk died Tuesday after eating poisonous Japanese yew in the Hailey Cemetery.
Cemetery District board Chair Ray Grosvenor said a passing driver reported seeing one dead elk at the cemetery late in the afternoon. He said the cemetery’s maintenance man called the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and a conservation officer responded almost immediately. Grosvenor said the officer found nine other elk lying dead in the snow. He said the officer immediately asked whether there were any yew plants at the cemetery.
Daryl Meints, Magic Valley Fish and Game regional wildlife manager, said in a news release that the non-native ornamental plant is very toxic.
Grosvenor said he immediately called the city of Hailey to seek help in removing the plants, which he said had been planted in the spring as hedges. According to a news release from the city, the Public Works Department used loaders and a blower and haul truck to thoroughly remove bushes and broken branches from the area.
“It was a cooperative effort between the city, Fish and Game and some of the landscaping companies,” Grosvenor said.
He said the work extended into the night.
According to the Department of Fish and Game, officers removed the dead elk from the cemetery to dispose of the carcasses.
A herd of about 15 live elk were seen at the cemetery Wednesday.
Grosvenor said neither the district’s board members nor the maintenance man had known that the plant was poisonous.
“It was very upsetting to everybody,” he said. “When we do stuff out here we’re trying to get food for the wildlife. The only bright side is that we saved the rest of the herd.”
According to numerous online sources, all species of yew are lethal to many wild and domestic animals and birds, as well as to people. Yew contain toxic alkaloids that affect heart muscle cells, depressing electrical conduction across the heart and resulting in abnormal heart rhythm.
“For millennia, people used yew alkaloids as both a method of suicide and a chemical weapon during hunting and warfare,” Dr. R. B. Cope stated in a paper published in the September 2005 issue of Veterinary Medicine. “Even sleeping beneath the shade of a yew bush was once considered dangerous.
“Yew also has a notorious reputation among livestock veterinarians in the Northern Hemisphere, and, within this context, Japanese yew, English yew and Chinese yew are among the most toxic plants in North America.”
Cope noted that the plant can kill a horse within 15 minutes of ingesting the plant, and eating a tiny piece is sufficient to kill a dog.
“A dog could consume a potentially lethal dose while playing with Taxus species branches or sticks,” he stated.
Dr. Karsten Fostvedt at St. Francis Pet Clinic in Ketchum said that during his 26 years of practice here, he has not encountered any incidents of yew poisoning among pets.
Cope stated that all parts of the plant except the fleshy covering of the seeds contain toxic alkaloids, and are particularly potent in the winter. However, he noted that Pacific yew, native to western North America, contains only a minimal amount of the toxins.
Cope stated that there is no antidote to yew poisoning.
An incident similar to the one in Hailey occurred near Astoria, Ore., in December 2013 when six elk died after eating English yew planted in a cemetery there.