SHIPROCK, N.M. – Ranchers in northwestern New Mexico suspect toxic plants, used in Navajo and Hopi religious ceremonies, are responsible for the recent deaths of more than a dozen cows.
At least 15 cows from different herds in the Shiprock area have died of a mysterious illness in the past three weeks, The Gallup Independent reports. And ranchers say the purple plant known as the tall mountain larkspur is the likely cause.
The plant, found in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, is growing in abundance on the range thanks to unusually wet weather. It is used as after-birth wash.
Navajo botanist and geologist Arnold Clifford said the plant is toxic to cows because of its high alkaloid concentrations.
Because the Shiprock range is nearly devoid of forage, cattle tend to supplement their diet with any plant species just to fill their stomachs, he said.
Ranchers Reginald Yabeny and his son, Waylon, of Mitten Rock, said Wednesday they have lost three cows in less than three weeks and have decided to keep the rest of their herd penned up until more information about the toxic plants becomes available.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Waylon Yabeny, 21, said standing in front of the corral, where about 40 heads of cows were kept Wednesday. “I don’t really think there’s a solution because it’s nature and you can’t really prevent anything, I guess. The best thing is to wait it out.”
The Jims are another family of ranchers that has lost a couple of cows. The family saw a post on Facebook about the possible toxic plants that may be killing the cows and started pulling out as many purple flowering plants from the area where their cows graze. The family later found out they were pulling out the wrong blue flower plant.
“I saw an advertisement going on, and I noticed they are growing everywhere,” said Jolene Jim, of Shiprock. “On top of the mesa, you see nothing but purple. I know some of our relatives were up there pulling them out.”
Clifford’s recommendation is to keep cattle penned up until the flowers die and the plants are no longer desirable for the cows.
“In a way, the holy plant people are probably sending us a message by increasing their numbers to cause these hardships in order for livestock producers to have more care and respect for the land,” he said. “Maybe we need to let the rangelands rest for several years.”