A crippling disease causing abnormal hoof growth in elk, which became prevalent in western Washington about 10 years ago and later moved across Oregon, has found its way to Idaho.
A hunter near White Bird killed an elk last fall that was recently confirmed to have treponema associate hoof disease, according to a news release from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. It is the first and only documented case of the worrisome wildlife affliction in the Gem State.
Hunting Unit 14 where the elk was harvested is nearby, but not immediately adjacent to, Wallowa County, Ore., where three confirmed cases of the bacteria-caused disease have been documented. It is not known if other elk in Idaho’s Unit 14 or surrounding areas suffer from the ailment.
Wildlife biologists with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game conducted routine aerial elk population surveys of units 11, 13 and 18 this winter. The units share a border with northeastern Oregon. They looked for signs of the disease but noticed only a few limping elk, which is not unusual.
“We did pay attention to it on our (population survey) flights and didn’t really find a bunch of lame animals – nothing out of the ordinary,” said Clay Hickey, regional wildlife manager for the department at Lewiston. “We would have tried to sample animals that were accessible had we seen them. It was literally a couple of (limping) elk out of thousands, and who knows what is behind that.”
He noted that lameness in elk can be traced back to several causes, from injury to abnormal hoof growth, unrelated to treponema associate hoof disease.
Mark Drew, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game veterinarian at Caldwell, noted the cases on the east side of Oregon are far less clustered than those on the west sides of Oregon and Washington. That could mean the disease won’t be widespread in Idaho. Some researchers believe the moist soil conditions of western Washington and Oregon make the disease more prevalent there.
“The hope is we are more like eastern Washington and eastern Oregon, with relatively low numbers of animals on the landscape that have this condition,” Drew said.
To help find out if that is the case – and to gather more information on which to base research and come up with a management plan, if warranted – the state is launching an online portal where the public can report sightings of elk with abnormal hoof growths or lameness. Drew said that system is expected to go live on the Idaho Fish and Game website within a few weeks. People can also report suspected cases by calling the Idaho Fish and Game Wildlife Health Laboratory at (208) 939-9179.
The crowdsourced reports will help wildlife managers identify clusters of lame elk so they can investigate further.
“That is the next step, to try to figure how many (elk may be affected) and where, based on the public, because they see a lot more elk and have way more eyes,” he said.
Mapping the disease will help wildlife biologists decide if any management actions need to be taken and if so what those actions might be.
“If we end up with only the one (case) and we never seen another one, that is a different story than if we have a bunch of dots on the map that form clusters in a couple of different places,” he said.
The disease was first documented in western Washington in 2000 and less than a decade later infected a significant number of animals in some herds there. Last year, it was found east of the Cascade Mountains in Washington for the first time and is now present in 14 counties. The disease has a larger geographic footprint in Oregon, where it was first documented in the state’s northwest corner in 2014, but has since been confirmed in Wallowa, Union, Baker, Morrow and Grant counties.
In Washington, the state legislature funded a position at Washington State University’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology at the College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman to lead an effort to study the disease. Margaret Wild, an expert in wildlife health, is heading that effort and in the initial process of setting up a research center focused on captive elk.
“That is when we will really be able to start looking more closely and learn in much more detail what is going on with this disease,” Wild said.
In addition to moving east, she said the disease is traveling northward on the west side of Washington.
“We are starting to get more in (the) Skagit area and up kind of over the Olympic Peninsula,” she said. “It unfortunately doesn’t show any sign of slowing down right now.”
The disease – which leads to sores, lesions and abnormalities that can make elk hooves look like slippers with curled toes – is often fatal. It leaves afflicted animals less able to move, feed and escape predators.
According to the Fish and Game news release, the bacteria that causes the disease is not associated with domestic livestock. Nonetheless, the department is coordinating its investigation with the Idaho Department of Agriculture. A fact sheet produced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife indicates there is no reason to believe the disease affects humans. Washington has also established an online reporting portal.
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