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The Great New Mexico Elk Murder Conspiracy

Benjamin Radford

Skeptical Briefs Volume 25.4, Winter 2015/16

On August 27, 2013, a hunter on a 75,000-acre ranch north of Las Vegas, New Mexico, stumbled upon a bizarre sight: over 100 dead elk lay on the ground. The smell of death lingered in the air as the man approached, and the mystery only deepened. There was no obvious sign oftrauma such as bullet wounds or claw marks; they all simply dropped dead, apparently en masse and on the spot.

Livestock deaths, by themselves, are not unusual—there are many things that can fell large animals in our desert climes, including predators, poachers, a natural or man-made toxin, disease, drought, heat, starvation, and even lightning.

But so many animals dying off at the same time is very mysterious, and the fact that the elk all seemed to have died in under twenty-four hours (and were at the same stages of decomposition) only added to the puzzle. Wildlife officials soon ruled out most of these possibilities: The elk weren’t shot (nor taken from the area), so it was not poachers. Tests came back negative for anthrax, a bacterium that exists naturally in the Southwest and can kill large animals. Though lightning strikes are not uncommon (in fact New Mexico has an unusually high number of lightning strikes compared to other states), a strike killing over 100 animals at one time would be an incredibly rare event.

Another possibility was some sort of contamination of the well or water tanks, but initial tests were fruitless. According to an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican, “Game and Fish investigated the case, and department staff, as well as pathologists from veterinary diagnostic labs where tissue samples were tested, ruled out a broad range of other possible causes of the elk deaths: anthrax, epizootic hemorrhagic disease, botulism, lightning strike, poaching, pesticides and malicious poisoning. ‘We couldn’t find anything [toxic] in their stomachs and no toxic plants on the landscape,’” said Kerry Mower, a wildlife disease specialist with Game and Fish (Radford 2013).

As news spread, some conspiracy-minded folk soon speculated about links to animal mutilations, Satanists, UFOs, or even the dreaded Hispanic vampire el chupacabra (a mystery I investigated and solved in my 2011 book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore).

Solving the Mystery (At Least That’s What They Want You to Think)

It took a little over a month—scientific sampling, testing, and analysis takes time—but scientists finally discovered what killed the elk. On October 22, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish issued a statement that read in part:

The Department of Game and Fish has concluded that a toxic algae bloom caused the deaths of more than 100 elk discovered Aug. 27 in northeastern New Mexico. Department biologists collected tissue samples from the dead elk and water samples from privately-owned land north of Las Vegas, N.M. The Department sent the samples to laboratories across the country. A lab found Anabaena, a form of naturally occurring blue-green algae that produces the deadly neurotoxin, anatoxin-a, in a water sample. This potent neurotoxin can cause illness and death within four to 12 hours if ingested.

“Based on circumstantial evidence,” said Kerry Mower, the Department’s wildlife disease specialist, “the most logical explanation for the elk deaths is that on their way back to the forest after feeding in the grassland, the elk drank water from a trough containing toxins created by blue-green algae or cyanobacteria.” Department biologists found the dead elk in a one-half mile by three-fourths mile area, and suspect that they died within the same 24-hour period. The elk showed signs of having struggled on the ground, symptoms consistent with poisoning from a neurotoxin.

Although some types of microscopic blue-green algae produce toxins, they seldom cause serious problems. During warm weather the algae can reproduce quickly in standing water, creating a bloom that releases deadly neurotoxins into the water. The conditions resulting in the elk mortality existed only a short period of time. Algae blooms occasionally kill livestock and pets, and can sometimes be harmful to humans. The Department investigated a wide variety of possible causes for the elk deaths in addition to the blue-green algae, including: anthrax, epizootic hemorrhagic disease, botulism, lighting strike, poaching, poisonous plants, malicious poisoning, toxic levels of sulfate and nitrate, and the possibility of an industrial or agricultural accident. The Department ruled out these causes of death.” (New Mexico Department of Game and Fish 2013)

I dug deeper and did some of my own research to corroborate the story. I began with Casarette and Doull’s Toxicology: The Basic Science of Poisons, a classic toxicology reference, which notes that “In warm weather, blooms of blue-green algae are not uncommon in farm ponds in temperate regions, particularly ponds enriched with fertilizer. Under these conditions, one species of alga, Anabaena flos-aquae, produces a neurotoxin, anatoxin-a, which depolarizes and blocks acetylcholine receptors, causing death in animals that drink the pond water. The lethal effects develop rapidly, with death in minutes to hours from respiratory arrest” (Klaassen 2001).

In other words, the elk herd suffocated to death, unable to breathe though on dry land, and the fast-acting toxin explains the animals’ strange, sudden deaths. In this case the algae appeared not in ponds but in three fiberglass livestock watering tanks not far from where the elk died. The algae-produced neurotoxin is similar to curare, the famous toxin found in poison-tipped arrows used by South American Indian tribes. Though anatoxin-a can be deadly to other animals including dogs and cattle, reports of human deaths are rare. New Mexico ranchers were advised to sanitize their livestock tanks to prevent further wildlife deaths.

Enter the Conspiracy Theorists

So the matter was settled: not hunters, not aliens, not roaming bands of Satanists or chupacabras. The deer drank water contaminated with a natural algae toxin. Except, of course, that’s not really what happened, because conspiracy theorists chimed in. The first came only a few days later. I wrote briefly about this case for Discovery News, and soon afterward a person using the screen name Kirby Carmichael emailed me with a rebuttal that addressed the following points:

Several problems exist with Mr. Radford’s article. . . . Anatoxin-A, the “real killer” referred to, was not found in any elk tissues or water samples. No Anabaena flos aquae was identified in any elk tissues. . . . The Anabaena flos aquae identified was found in a sample of water taken from a developed water tank, not a pond . . . and reports of human deaths from anatoxin-A are nonexistent, not rare.

I gamely replied:

Dear Kirby Carmichael, I received your e-mail with new information about the NM elk deaths, and I’d be happy to learn more. Below are your comments and my responses.

1) “Anatoxin-A, the ‘real killer’ referred to, was not found in any elk tissues or water samples. No Anabaena flos aquae was identified in any elk tissues. No tell-tale algae was found around the mouths of any elk.” Please provide references for this; I’d be happy to look at them.

2) “The Anabaena flos aquae identified was found in a sample of water taken from a developed water tank, not a pond.” That is correct, and what the story says. It states explicitly that the source was not a pond but instead a water tank. Since you agree with me on this point, it’s not clear why this is a “problem” with my article.

3) “Reports of human deaths from anatoxin-A are nonexistent, not rare.” Please provide references for this; I’d be happy to look at them. I’m surprised you can definitively state that no human has ever died from anatoxin-A. In fact according to a 2003 newspaper report, a Dane County coroner determined that Wisconsin teenager Dane Rogers died from exposure to anatoxin-A (http://www.whoi.edu/­science/B/redtide/notedevents/bluegreen/bluegreen_9-5-03.html). This case is also cited in a NOAA report: http://www.glerl.noaa.gov/res/Centers/­HumanHealth/docs/michigan_workshop/xagoraraki_hab_workshop.pdf.

I replied to him on November 11, and again on November 14, and again on November 21, and again on December 2. After politely and repeatedly asking for information and evidence to back up his claims, I never heard back.

A Closer Look

These claims of a cover-up were puzzling to me. Who would want to mercilessly murder a hundred or so innocent elk? What organization would be so powerful as to kill a herd of elk, cover it up, and pay hush money to keep anyone from finding out about it?

The Albuquerque chapter of the Elk Eradication Corps? Unnamed evildoers? The Illuminati? And as long as we’re looking around for players in this mystery, where the hell were the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks? Shouldn’t they put down their bottles long enough to dispatch a crack team of investigators to do some of the elk protecting that they talk about? Speaking of the Elks, we’re back in the clandestine world of secret handshakes, arcane rituals that may or may not involve goat blood and Trader Joe’s horseradish mayonnaise.

The classic conspiracy organization is the Illuminati, a group founded in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a law professor in Bavaria. Weishaupt claimed to have been given mysterious, arcane knowledge by a “higher source,” which presumably could have been anything from God to extraterrestrials to voices in his head. The Illuminati organization resembled a pyramid scheme cult, with new initiates required to pledge total obedience to Weishaupt, and promises of greater revealed wisdom the more invested a member became. The Illuminati was outlawed in Bavaria in 1783, and by 1800 the group was all but defunct in Germany, but its ideas had spread to America, Europe, and elsewhere. Though the Illuminati only existed for less than two decades over two centuries ago, many conspiracy theorists believe that it remains active and powerful, and it is often associated with New World Order and anti-Jewish conspiracies.

But why would the Illuminati want to kill a bunch of elk in the middle of nowhere? They wouldn’t—unless of course they are in cahoots with one of the most powerful industries in the world: the oil and gas industry. What are they covering up?

Get with the program, Skippy: More like what aren’t they covering up? These bigwigs have their fat little fingers in everybody’s pie, and they have some stake in everything from waste disposal to Big Pharma to Angie’s List (here’s a hint for you: “Angie” is probably really “Angelo,” a Puerto Rican enforcer with fingers like éclairs who breaks legs for a living).

According to people who hear things (but don’t have the stones that I do to keep my readers in the know), the elk die-off was an accident. Nobody put a hit on the elk; it wasn’t a message from Angelo to some hunter. But it wasn’t innocent, either. What happened was that the elk died in a cloud of poisonous gasses or water that could have killed anyone in the area. Where did this toxic substance come from? Fracking.

Yes, that much-maligned target of environmentalists everywhere, the hydraulic fracturing method by which underground gas or oil is extracted by injecting water or fracturing fluids (some of which may be toxic) into the ground. Fracking is widely performed across the country, and the safety of this process has been challenged. An examination of the arguments for and against fracking is beyond the scope of this investigation. The point is that it was blamed for killing this hundred-strong elk herd.

Nobody was supposed to get hurt. No animals were supposed to die. It was all a minor mistake, an aberrant slip-up that reveals the dangers of this technology—if you just look at it the right way, through the eyes of a conspiracy theorist.

Fracking Conspiracies

A website called EarthJustice.org has a section on the dangers of New Mexico fracking. It reads, “As gas companies try to stake a claim in the Lewis Shale, they’re facing off against residents in towns like Aztec, who aren’t too happy about their new corporate neighbors. Energy giant BP has been drilling wells as close as 150 yards to people’s homes and has been buying up mineral rights all around the region. But in other parts of the state—like Santa Fe County and the Valle Vidal—residents have fought back and chalked up historic victories against oil and gas company abuses.” The website then shows a map of “some of the high profile incidents (‘fraccidents’) related to the country’s gas drilling boom that have already occurred in and around New Mexico.”

However, the only “fracking accident” mentioned in New Mexico is this: “One ranching family in San Juan County, New Mexico noted numerous spills and leaks at well pads on the public land where their cattle graze. After losing some of their herd they tested the other sick cattle from the area. Results from the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory in 2005 found petroleum in the hair of 54 out of 56 animals tested” (Earthjustice 2013).

This is hardly a smoking gun indictment of fracking as a cause of death for an elk herd. In fact it’s not clear what it’s supposed to mean at all. It mentions some sick cattle that were apparently found in 2005 by one anonymous ranching family in San Juan County (which is near the Four Corners area), while the 2013 elk die-off happened near Las Vegas, hundreds of miles to the southeast in San Miguel County—and happened eight years later. What’s the connection? Who knows? It’s the sort of non-sequitur half-baked, quasi-anonymous dubious information that fuels rumors and conspiracy theories.

The Second Contact

The fracking conspiracy connection to the elk deaths soon appeared when a commenter named David Irwin replied to my piece: “I would be testing the local water supplies especially if Freakin Fracking operations are in the area, which are all over New Mexico. The chemicals they pump back into the ground enter our water supplies and eventually make them poisonous. If Fracking continues, every state they’re in will loose [sic] its water supply . . . then what? If [sic] baffles me why our legislators allow this to go on when there is so much evidence showing the damage it is doing by pollution of ground water and causing earthquakes and venting of toxic gases. When will enough be enough? When will Americans stand up and scream, ‘Let’s tar and feather every corporate CEO involved in these operations!’”

I got a semi-anonymous tip by email a few weeks later: “There’s a rumor going around that the NM environmental agency is covering up something else—that it was fracking fluids that caused the death of the elks. Have you heard anything along those lines? Obviously, if it was fracking fluid, it would not bode well for the oil and gas corporations seeking to expand drilling in that part of the state.”

I replied, “That’s an interesting theory, and it’s not surprising to me that such a conspiracy would arise in that context. There are many conspiracies that have an environmental pollution aspect, including HAARP (weather control), chemtrails, and so on. Is it possible that algae was NOT really found in stock tanks the elk drank from, and that it’s all a big cover-up or lie? I suppose anything is possible . . . the real question is, is there any evidence that the elk died from fracking fluid? If you know of any, I’d be happy to look at it.”

My correspondent got back to me a few days later: “We’re not sure that the environmental agency even tested for the presence of fracking fluids—in other words, they omitted testing for it so that they wouldn’t find it. It would all be found in the original requests sent to the lab from the agency, which we may seek to force the release of. . . . Might be a conspiracy theory that turns out to be true.”

I responded, “I guess I’m not following what you’re saying. . . . I’ve done water sampling testing and analysis, and it would not surprise me if they did not test for fracking fluids, or ricin, or polonium, or any number of other exotic possible toxins. . . . You can’t test for everything, it is impractical and extremely expensive. Are you suggesting that anatoxin-a was not found in the water samples, and that the lab and scientists faked those results? Or that the toxin was found but that it wasn’t at high enough levels to kill the elk?”

He replied, “Either one. . . . We believe that they may have fudged the results, and made an explicit choice not to test for fracking fluids in the nearby water supply.”

“Interesting,” I replied. “I guess anything is possible, though it seems far more likely that if fracking fluids killed the elk, the industry would simply have paid off the ranch owner for the loss and kept it quiet from the start. Why go through all the trouble of either planting algae in a water tank for others to find, or paying off labs to fake the results and thus needing to pay off a dozen or more people to keep quiet about it, and expose themselves to blackmail? Doesn’t make sense to me, but if you find anything I’d be happy to look at it with an open mind. . . .”

In fact, I followed that up with an offer to help him get information to prove his theory: “I don’t have a lot of time but I’m pretty good at research, perhaps I may be able to help . . . what specific documents, pieces of information, or sources are you unable to get that would help determine the truth?”

I never heard back. Either he realized that the Great Elk Conspiracy was unlikely, or maybe he figured I was part of the cover-up and he couldn’t trust me to help get the information. In any event, two different people endorsing conspiracy theories about the elk deaths contacted me, and in both cases I responded with facts, logic, and an open mind—not to mention an offer to review any evidence they had and even help uncover more evidence that supported their claims.

Conclusion

To be clear, I have no position on fracking one way or the other. I’ve heard lots of bad things about it, but I’ve also seen some bogus arguments against it. I’m not a paid shill for Big Oil and have no vested interest in the issue one way or the other. My only question is simply this: Is there good evidence that the massive elk die-off of 2013 was in any way caused by or related to fracking?

For part of the answer we can turn to public radio reporter Laura Paskus from KUNM.org—hardly known as a mouthpiece of Big Oil. In a July 11, 2012, article titled “New Mexico’s Fracking Legacy,” Paskus notes that

As the natural gas boom has spread to the eastern United States, the term “fracking” has become common in news reports coming out of Pennsylvania and New York. But fracking has been a part of New Mexico’s history for decades. After all, fracking is not a new technology. Halliburton pioneered hydraulic fracturing, as it’s officially known, in the 1940s. And it has been used around New Mexico for decades. . . . Fracking has been happening for a long time and its use is widespread in New Mexico. There are about 60,000 oil and gas wells in New Mexico—and 95 percent of those are fracked. (Paskus 2012)

So if there are about 57,000 oil and gas wells using hydraulic fracturing in New Mexico—and the fracking has gone on for decades and is as dangerous as claimed—then we should expect to see massive animal die-offs on a regular basis. The 2013 elk deaths should be just the tip of a huge iceberg, only one of dozens or even hundreds of massive, mysterious wildlife deaths that span decades across the state.

Instead, the 100 elk killed was such a rarity that it made national news, instead of being only the latest in a series. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish found a known, natural toxin in water the elk drank from. Sometimes it’s just as simple as that.

I’ve researched and written extensively about the psychology of conspiracy theories, and one core element is that simple explanations are often rejected in favor of complex scenarios. It can’t be as simple as elk drinking bad water: they must have been poisoned by toxic fracking chemicals that somehow only killed the elk (and no other nearby animals) and apparently left no trace. And of course it’s part of a greater cover-up to hide a threat to not only wildlife but New Mexicans as well. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim. It’s not up to me, or the Department of Game and Fish, or anyone else to prove that the elk did not die from some fracking-related cause. It’s up to those who claim that the deaths are related to the oil industry to provide evidence for their claims. The truth may be out there, and if there is hard evidence linking a fracking conspiracy to the elk deaths, I’ll be happy to see it. So far they have produced nothing but rumor and speculation.

I’m not saying that some conspiracy theories might not be true, and I’m not saying that fracking might not be dangerous to wildlife. I am saying that there is no evidence that the 100 New Mexican elk died of anything but the natural-but-toxic algae in their drinking water, and there’s no evidence that fracking had anything to do with it—much less that the deaths were covered up as part of a conspiracy. Of course, they’ll tell you, that’s what they want you to think. . . .

References

Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford's photo

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Bad Clowns; his next, Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, will be out in Fall 2017.