Twenty-four cows were found dead in a pasture near Gold Creek at the beginning of February.
The dead cattle were reported to the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office early in the morning on Feb. 1. Sheriff’s Deputy David Leeman, who visited the site that day, observed “multiple dead and bloated cows in a field,” according to his investigative report. The property is on the west side of Highway 153 near the north end of Gold Creek Loop Road.
Leeman contacted Kurt Clees at the property, who said the cattle had recently died and he was working on a plan to dispose of them. Clees was currently digging a large trench to bury the animals, Leeman wrote.
Two of the cows had been brought to the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Washington State University (WSU) to determine the cause of death, Leeman wrote. A local veterinarian had also taken samples to try to determine the cause of death, Clees told Leeman.
If the investigation determines that the cause of death was not natural, it could become a criminal investigation, Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said last week. According to Leeman’s investigation, foul play is not suspected and there are no allegations of anything illegal, Hawley said.
According to the sheriff’s log, the individual who reported the dead cows said there didn’t appear to be any fresh hay in the pasture.
Another person told the Methow Valley News that she had driven past the pasture a couple of times at the end of January and noticed carcasses in the field. She said the surviving cattle appeared to have been moved into an adjacent field.
Leeman contacted Rick Daugherty, an animal health investigator with the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) to advise him of the situation. Daugherty said he would try to contact Clees and the WSU lab, according to Leeman.
Although WSDA gets reports of situations like this, the agency’s primary concern is whether the deaths were caused by disease. Otherwise, the department doesn’t conduct its own investigation, Communications Director Hector Castro said. WSDA also has regulations to ensure that carcasses are properly disposed of. Abuse and negligence are handled by local law enforcement, Castro said.
Initial reports suggest that the cause of death was not a disease, but some type of nitrate poisoning, Castro said. WSDA did not visit the site but has been in touch with the WSU lab, Castro said. “I’m sure this is a terrible situation for the livestock owner,” he said.
The WSU lab is not permitted to provide information about its findings without permission from the individual who submitted the specimens to the lab, said Charlie Powell, a public information officer for the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine.
Although it’s a full-service pathology lab, they can’t always find an answer, Powell said. Livestock can be sickened by poisonous grasses or by mold, he said. “It’s not uncommon for a cattle producer to have a die-off and send them to the lab,” he said.
The diagnostic lab conducts a quarter of a million tests a year and is open to anyone who wants to know why an animal died — from cats and dogs to cattle and horses, Powell said. Depending on the situation, the lab may receive organs or an entire animal to examine, he said.
Because there are millions of chemicals and potential causes of death, the submitting party has to give the lab an idea of where to start, such as unusual behavior or symptoms before death or changes in food or water, Powell said.
“It’s certainly not normal for 24 animals to drop dead all at one time,” Powell said. Still, in his 31 years with WSU, there’s usually been a fairly easy explanation. “It’s usually not as big and nefarious as the speculation,” he said.
Clees could not be reached by press time. Mike Isenhart, a veterinarian with the Brewster Veterinary Clinic who examined the cows was out of town and couldn’t be reached.