Homeowners, spate of animal deaths may come down to yew

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 Dr. Jennifer Ramsey, Wildlife Veterinarian with Fish, Wildlife and Parks of Montana collects samples from a fox’s intestine during a necropsy at the lab in Bozeman. The fox may have died from eating a Japanese yew. (Jordon Neidermeier/for WHYY)

Dr. Jennifer Ramsey, Wildlife Veterinarian with Fish, Wildlife and Parks of Montana collects samples from a fox’s intestine during a necropsy at the lab in Bozeman. The fox may have died from eating a Japanese yew. (Jordon Neidermeier/for WHYY)

Drop-dead gorgeous plant kills big game in the Rocky Mountain West.

The Japanese yew is beautiful and deadly. So deadly, landscaper Stuart Shay won’t plant it anymore. Shay is a sustainable landscaper. He doesn’t put anything in the ground that he considers harmful to the local ecosystem.

The yew isn’t his enemy, exactly.

“I guess you could say that,” he said. “I mean, yeah, sure. An informal Japanese yew resistor, maybe?”

Photo-4-1Landscaper Stuart Shay is shown poking around in his yard. He practices sustainable gardening, meaning that the abundance of his garden is completely safe for wildlife to eat. (Brie Ripley for WHYY) 

In Shay’s own backyard, when wild animals come to visit, everything’s safe to eat.

“Deer travel along this canal over here to the south, and they definitely like — they browse through my yard,” Shay said.

It’s as if they’re grocery shopping.

In January, Department of Idaho Fish and Game officials were called to investigate a string of suspicious deaths and pointed the finger at Japanese yew. They found the plant killed nearly three-dozen elk, a herd of 50 pronghorn — also known as antelope — and two moose.

The problem reaches as far east as Pennsylvania, where yew was the culprit in the killing of a mamma black bear and her three cubs.

A county in southern Idaho considers the perennial shrub such a problem that the county issued a ban last year. It’s now a misdemeanor for landowners to plant or possess any variety of Japanese yew.

In Billings, Montana, at the nursery down the street from Shay’s house, they don’t seem to be as worried. Garden stores still sell yew, and landowners still buy it.

But three hours west, Jennifer Ramsey is worried. She’s the chief wildlife veterinarian at the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks lab in Bozeman. Ramsey does necropsies — that’s an animal autopsy — to investigate suspicious wildlife deaths.

She has a walk-in freezer the size of a ticket booth at a movie theater, dead animals waiting their turn. It stinks inside.

“So we have an elk calf and an owl that was found dead in someone’s yard,” she said as she gave me the tour. “This man had an owl die in his yard — that seemed odd to him. So, luckily he brought it in. Now we can see whether he died from something disease-related or not — or toxics,” Ramsey said.

At an heavy steel table she begins slicing into the intestine of a fox suspected of dying suddenly from a poisoning. The little guy is bloated and pretty far along in the decay process. His small intestines have turned a bright green and his liver looks squishy and caramelized, like my grandma’s apple butter.

As she works, an enormous industrial fan roars from the ceiling to vent the stench of rotting flesh.

“You get a grizzly bear in here, and I have people — like people in the building next door — complaining to me about the smell,” Ramsey said. “That’s how bad it gets.”

Animals are usually pretty good at avoiding poisonous plants. But just as they’ve made it through a harsh, often subzero Montana winter, their will to survive overrides their instinct to stay away from poison. They’ll nibble at anything.

“At that time of year, they’re looking for something to sustain themselves. You can imagine that an animal that’s in that poor of body condition might be willing to ingest something that maybe doesn’t taste so good,” Ramsey said.

Around this time each year, Jennifer starts getting calls from outdoorsy types. People with lots of property or hikers call when they come across a carcass. It’s just unusual to find a young healthy-looking animal dead in the woods.

“Yew is one that they ingest that doesn’t take very long before they actually are dead,” Ramsey said.

Taxus cuspidata fruits

Japanese yew (Wikimedia commons) 

If you’re an animal without a map in the Rocky Mountain West, it’s easy to stumble into a private backyard decorated with poisonous yew. Montana is a checkerboard of private and public lands.

Especially out in the more desolate areas, Ramsey says that she needs landowners to help her solve mysterious animal deaths.

“The public really can be our eyes and ears and let us know when they see something sick or something dead that just doesn’t make sense. And that can really give us a better chance of getting a diagnosis,” she said.

Every day, landowners make planting decisions that change the course of an animal life. A winter-worn elk or a curious fox sees every plant as a potential meal.

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