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North Dakota officials investigate 'unnatural' deaths of 58 cows

Bar V Ranch personnel found 58 dead cows and 15 other cows that suffered spontaneous abortions in a pasture near Jamestown, North Dakota, on July 29. After testing for other causes, veterinarians believe the deaths were "caused by something not naturally occurring."

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JAMESTOWN, North Dakota — A North Dakota ranch and the North Dakota Stockmen's Association have put up a $40,000 reward for information about the deaths of 58 pregnant cows that were grazing on the Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge.

The cows were found dead on July 29 on land leased by the Bar V Ranch. Of the 138 cows grazing in that pasture, 58 were dead and 15 more suffered spontaneous abortions. After testing ruled out lightning, anthrax, blue-green algae, clostridial disease, lead poisoning, lack of water or naturally-occurring nitrate toxicity, investigators have launched a criminal investigation.

At a news conference held in at the Jamestown Law Enforcement Center on Wednesday, Sept. 1, officials with the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, Stutsman County Sheriff's Department and North Dakota State University joined rancher Brian Amundson to discuss the case.

Amundson said he had checked the cows the week prior, on July 23. The cows in that pasture were in his fall calving herd, which would be due to calve in September and October. His crew was busy with artificially inseminating their larger spring calving herd. A crew on horseback went to move the fall-calving cows to a new pasture on July 29 and found the dead animals.

"I immediately went to the pasture and the whole process kind of started with calling the state veterinarian and the correct officials that needed to be there to help us figure out the what and the whys immediately, that there wasn't a threat to the other livestock, ourselves or anybody else in the surrounding area," Amundson said.

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Anthrax was an immediate concern. Anthrax has been confirmed in other cattle in the state this year , and it can be dangerous to humans as well. But after anthrax was ruled out, North Dakota State University Extension veterinarian Gerald Stokka and three veterinarians from the North Dakota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab came out and did necropsies on the animals on an unseasonably warm day.

"It was not pleasant conditions at all," Stokka said.

Stokka, at the news conference, said the deaths appeared to have occurred within about a 48-hour window and seemed to indicate a "point-source event," which narrowed down the possible causes of death.

"Without being able to stand on 100% certainty of this, it's my opinion that somehow these cattle had access to non-naturally occurring nitrates, and that can come from a number of different sources," Stokka said.

Stokka said there is no evidence at this time to definitively say where the nitrates could have come from.

"There's no way I can know any of this for sure," he said. "What we're trying to do is rule things out that might be suspicious."

Dr. Gerald Stokka, North Dakota State University Extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist, visits with the media on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in regard to a large-scale cattle death case in Stutsman County. John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun
Stokka said "there are ways to accomplish" nitrate toxicity if someone were to "set out to do so." Dry urea is one possibility, he said. He recalled an incident when he worked in Kansas where dry urea was applied to an area and some spilled. Cattle walked by and ate it and died.

"Why would cattle do that?" he asked. "I don't know, but they will."

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Dr. Gerald Stokka, North Dakota State University Extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist, talks at a press conference Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in regards to a large-scale cattle death case in Stutsman County. At right is Major Jason Falk, an investigator with the Stutsman County Sheriff's Office. John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun
It doesn't take much to kill cattle with dry urea, he said. How that could have happened in the case of the Amundson cattle, he didn't know.

"Whether it's dry urea or placed in the water, I'm not sure," he said.

Stokka said there were low levels of nitrates in the water, but not enough to have caused the magnitude of death loss as occurred. Plus, the surviving cattle were moved to an adjacent pasture with the same water source without incident, indicating that the water was not the problem.

Stutsman County Sheriff's Investigator Jason Falk said two hay fires at Amundson's ranch, in "very close" proximity to the pasture where the cattle died, also are under investigation. Those fires, on April 10 and 22, have been labeled "highly suspicious" and resulted in the loss of 2,000 bales of hay, worth $200,000.

Amundson said the incidents have been an "unnecessary distraction" in a year already full of challenges. Ranchers become resilient to occasional animal losses, he said.

"But typically, you don't experience much more than maybe a percent or a percent and a half death loss, and that's kind of normal industry standards," he said. "It's a significant death loss. it's not normal."

He said they wanted to know if there was some kind of management problem or accident that could have caused the cattle deaths, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

"Unfortunately, we've had to come to this conclusion that it is very suspicious, that there was something else involved that wasn't natural to cause this," he said.

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Blaine Northrop, North Dakota Stockmen's Association chief brand inspector, talks during a press conference Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in regard to a large-scale cattle death case in Stutsman County. John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun
Amundson and his family have put up $26,000 in rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever was responsible for the cattle deaths, and the North Dakota Stockmen's Association offered another $14,000, Chief Brand Inspector Blaine Northrop said. Falk said there was no known connection between the cattle deaths and the shooting deaths of two cows in Kidder County, which occurred earlier in July . A $24,000 reward has been offered in that case.

Anyone with information can contact the Stutsman County Sheriff's Department's tip line at 701-251-6232, North Dakota Stockmen's Association Deputy Brand Inspector Fred Frederikson at 701-290-3993 or Chief Brand Inspector Blaine Northrop at 701-390-2975.

Jenny Schlecht is the editor of Agweek and Sugarbeet Grower Magazine. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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