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Half the elk at Busse Woods died last year, and officials aren’t sure why

Tuesday, August 07, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Gregory Pratt

Half the elk at Busse Woods died last year, and officials aren’t sure why

Gregory PrattChicago Tribune

The Cook County Forest Preserve District can’t explain how half its elk herd at Busse Woods died last year.

Kept in a 17-acre pen with an open pasture and shaded woodland, the animals sometimes disappear into high grass, making them nearly invisible to even the forest preserve workers responsible for caring for them and giving them water.

For more than three weeks last September, the employees responsible for the animals’ care noted in internal logs that they had not spotted a single one of the six elk that roamed there. By the end of the month, however, officials discovered three were dead — possibly from dehydration, records show.

One worker was suspended for 29 days but challenged the suspension and eventually had it reduced to eight days, disciplinary records show. Another was accused of being negligent and not providing the elk enough water, and was given a written reprimand, records show. Two others were not disciplined, records show.

After an investigation, General Superintendent Arnold Randall said forest preserve officials still “don’t know” the animals’ cause of death and whether it’s because they didn’t get enough water.

Still, Randall acknowledged a change in policy aimed at better accounting and improved hydrating of the animals. The new policy is aimed at making sure the elk have enough water and there isn’t any dispute over whether the trough was completely filled.

“I think what we know is the staff filled the tank, (but) there was some question of what’s the definition of ‘filled,’” Randall said. “We changed some of the language so it’s overflowing, so there’s no question what we’re talking about.”

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Cook County Commissioner Timothy Schneider, whose district includes Elk Grove Village, said he is displeased with the forest preserves’ handling of the elk deaths. Schneider said the discipline meted out against the employees wasn’t enough and he doesn’t believe the district should bring in more elk later this year until officials can definitively explain why half the preserve’s herd died last year.

Schneider said his belief, from talking to district employees, is the animals died because they weren’t given enough water.

“Individuals are prosecuted for leaving their dogs in cars in hot weather. How could a forest preserve employee receive only an eight-day suspension for being responsible for the death of three beautiful elk, who relied on him for their care?” Schneider said, adding the elk are “majestic animals” that “should be protected at all costs.”

The controversy over the dead elk is among the latest for the embattled Cook County forest preserves. In June, a county worker was involved in a fatal crash while driving four individuals who were carrying out community service work through the Cook County court system.

Then, in July, a video went viral of a Chicago man confronting a Puerto Rican woman at a park, spawning hate crime charges against him and national headlines in part because a forest preserves officer appeared to ignore the woman’s requests for help.

Like the alleged hate crime controversy, the dead elk hit at one of the district’s core functions: attracting visitors.

Families from across Cook County visit Busse Woods to see the elk. The district has kept a small herd there since 1925, when 10 of the antlered creatures arrived from Yellowstone National Park.

The elk pen is a “very popular site,” Randall said.

“One of the things that’s interesting about the preserves in general is you have the opportunity to see animals in the wild,” Randall said.

A June 2016 memo lays out some of the ways the district takes care of the elk. After a citizen informed the preserves that an elk was lying immobile on the field, an official checked it out and later told his bosses the elk died giving birth.

A memo recounting the incident said workers are supposed to call the preserves’ wildlife biologist if they see animals showing any “distress or unusual behavior.” There are two workers primarily responsible for the elk’s care.

During the summer, the elk aren’t fed as they graze on the land and are only provided water, the memo said.

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Foreshadowing the district’s future problem, however, the memo said it “becomes difficult to get a head count because the grass is high and the elks do not come up to the trucks as it does in the winter time where food is brought to them.”

Randall said the animals’ routine care is not “rocket science.”

“You have to make sure where (they) are and they have appropriate water,” Randall said.

Still, disciplinary and investigative reports released in response to a request for public records show various employees were accused of acting “negligently in ensuring the safety and well-being of the elk.”

One employee, in particular, was accused of not having “properly” executed the responsibilities of observing and “watering of the elk.”

In its settlement agreement with the suspended employee, the district agreed to “prepare written policies and procedures relating to the care of its elk” and “provide relevant training by a licensed and certified large animal veterinarian for feeding and watering the elk to any employee undertaking any care or responsibility for the elk.”

Asked about the language in the settlement, Randall said, “Obviously he was making a case on his own behalf and our position was there clearly were rules and a log and expectations.”

“But I think we felt it was important … to sharpen, to make it clear without a doubt about expectations,” he added.

The animals were autopsied by the University of Illinois and toxicology tests were performed by Michigan State University, but the results were inconclusive, the Department of Agriculture said in an inspection report.

“The lack of daily observation of the animals doesn’t allow facility staff to assess their health and well-being,” the USDA said. “Assure all animals are observed daily to assess their health and well-being. Assure any problems of health, behavior, or well-being are reported to the veterinarian.”

The USDA report also said the preserves “implemented multiple corrective actions in an effort to prevent future incidents.”

Expanding on that, Randall said the district had its wildlife biology team train all the staff. They redesigned the daily log form so it’s easier to complete daily observations and fill out very specifically, “Did you count them, did you overfill the tank?” he said.

“The whole issue around what is full, what’s the definition of full, now it’s overflowing, there’s no gray area,” Randall said. “That has to happen every day, obviously.”

District officials plan to bring more elk from Texas later this fall.

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @royalpratt



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