Outdoors

Elk hoof rot disease raises further questions for wildlife experts

The four deformed hooves of one elk with hoof disease are shown in this lab photo by researchers studying the disease plaguing elk in southwest Washington.
The four deformed hooves of one elk with hoof disease are shown in this lab photo by researchers studying the disease plaguing elk in southwest Washington.

Elk in southwest Washington with severe symptoms of a disturbing hoof disease will likely be euthanized to put them out of their misery as no treatment has been found, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say.

The timing of the culling hasn’t been decided, according to Jerry Nelson, WDFW deer and elk section manager.

Since 2008, WDFW has received increasing reports of elk with misshapen hooves in Cowlitz, Pacific, Lewis, Clark, Wahkiakum and Grays Harbor counties. Scientists advising WDFW believe the animals pick up and transmit the disease through wet soil, which is characteristic of the lowlands of southwest Washington.

WDFW announced the culling plan Monday, two weeks after a 16-member scientific panel agreed that the disease most likely involves a type of bacterial infection. Members of the panel, composed of veterinarians and researchers, agreed that the disease closely resembles contagious ovine digital dermatitis in sheep, which is associated with treponeme bacteria.

Dr. Kristin Mansfield, WDFW epidemiologist, said treponeme bacteria have been linked to an increase of hoof disease in sheep and cattle in many parts of the world. However, treponeme has never before been documented in elk or other wildlife.

Dr. Boone Mora of Skamokawa, a retired public health researcher, has urged WDFW to consider leptospirosis, a disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans, as a cause of hoof rot. Members of the advisory panel have ruled out leptospirosis.

Nate Pamplin, director of WDFW’s Wildlife Program, said the treponeme diagnosis limits the department’s management options, because there is no vaccine for the disease and no proven options for treating it in the field.

Some livestock producers bathe the hooves of infected sheep and cattle in an antibiotic solution, but many become re-infected and are ultimately sent to market, Mansfield said.

“In any case, daily footbaths are not a realistic solution when you’re dealing with thousands of free-roaming elk,” she said in a media release.

“At this point, we don’t know whether we can contain this disease,” Pamplin said, “but we do know that assessing its impacts and putting severely crippled animals out of their misery is the right thing to do.”

One suggestion that’s come up is to grant hunters a “humane harvest” tag that would allow them to kill a diseased elk in addition to a healthy one.

“At this stage, I don’t think we’re ruling anything out,” Nelson said.

Mark Smith of Toutle, a member of WDFW’s hoof rot working group, said it’s premature to decide on culling because there are too many unanswered questions about hoof rot. He called for capturing elk with hoof rot and studying them in an enclosed location.

“There are too many unanswered questions” and the public is demanding more information, Smith said. “They haven’t been able to solve the problem, and now they’re trying to eliminate the problem.”

Cowlitz County Commissioner Jim Misner, who’s also in the hoof rot group, said he also supports testing of live elk. Misner said he’d like WDFW to allow hunters to get a second hunting tag if they shoot an elk with hoof rot.

This summer, WDFW will assess the geographic spread of hoof disease and the proportion of the herd that is affected, Pamplin said. WDFW will enlist volunteers to report their observations. Information gathered from the survey will be compared against sightings of diseased elk reported by the public since 2010 using WDFW’s online reporting system.

Reports can be filed at the department’s website, wdfw.wa.gov.

Next winter, WDFW will capture and fit elk with radio collars to determine how the disease is affecting area elk populations, survival rates and calving.

To minimize the spread of the disease, WDFW is also proposing new regulations requiring hunters to leave the hooves of any elk taken in the affected area on site. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is scheduled to hear public comments and take action on that proposal in August.

Pamplin noted that hoof disease is one of a number of illnesses without a cure affecting wildlife throughout the nation. Chronic wasting disease, epizootic hemorrhagic disease and tuberculosis all take their toll on elk and deer each year in other states.


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Rich Landers

Rich Landers

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