Chokecherry Tree Causes Moose Deaths

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The ornamental tree European bird cherry, or Chokecherry, is being blamed for the deaths of three moose in Anchorage this winter. The plant is not toxic to humans or most other animals but for ruminants such as cattle, deer and moose, the popular landscaping tree can be deadly. Dr. Kimberlee Beckman is a wildlife veterinarian for the state department of Fish and Game’s division of wildlife conservation. Beckman says chokecherry trees are not toxic all the time. Certain conditions in the fall create deadly compounds that turn in to cyanide gas in the rumen, the largest chamber in a moose’s stomach. She says the problem is not well studied and cases are rare. The 3 moose deaths this winter and one in 2006 are the only documented cases in moose.

She says it doesn’t take very long for the animal to die. Chewing the buds and tips of the branches breaks up the toxins and even small amounts can create cyanide that will kill the moose within 20 minutes. Beckman says in cases where cattle and deer have eaten toxic buds, they don’t make it more than 100 feet from the tree before dying. She says one of the moose deaths in Anchorage was from eating branches a homeowner had pruned in the fall and then stashed under a deck. The branches were tested and contained lethal amounts of cyanide compounds even though they had been trimmed months earlier. Beckman recommends mulching or disposing of such trimmings so moose scrounging for browse in late winter won’t be poisoned. She says the 3rd moose poisoned in Anchorage also had toxic levels of Japanese Yew, which is toxic all the time, to all animals and people.

The Yew plant is an evergreen with short needles. Beckman says chokecherry trees are an invasive that have quickly left back yards and are spreading at an alarming rate in Anchorage.

Beckman says another popular landscape plant that is very toxic is lilies. She says cats chewing the leaves or especially the bulb would die quickly.

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