State wildlife officials were told Wednesday that letting the elk hoof disease outbreak in Southwest Washington just run its course is unacceptable and something must be tried to slow or contain the ailment.
However, what's needed or can be done is the big question, given there's no answer to what's causing the affliction.
The agency's Hoof Disease Public Working Group met for the second time in Vancouver. The panel includes county commissioners, academics, timber company representatives, state and federal land managers, businessmen and representatives of sportsmen's and conservation organizations.
Sporadic reports of lame elk or elk with overgrown or missing hooves in the Cowlitz River basin began in the mid-1990s.
Since 2008, reports of elk with hoof disease have increased and spread west to Pacific County, north to Lewis County and south to Clark County. Due to the rapid increase in sightings since 2008, scientists believe a new disease may have entered the elk population.
The working group agreed Wednesday that a no-action alternative is no good.
"WDFW did this with hair loss (syndrome) on deer and they haven't recovered,'' said Daniel Cothren, a Wahkiakum County commissioner. "Are we going that same path with this? It finally kind of ran its course, but the deer population isn't recovering.''
Letting the hoof disease run its course was one of four options the Department of Fish and Wildlife identified. The others include reducing the density of the elk population, trying to contain the disease to its current geographical reach or trying treatments to increase the elk's immunity and/or improve nutrition.
Most of the hunters on the work group said elk seasons that begin in September and continue until mid-December are too long and place too much stress on the animals.
This March, elk as young as 9 to 10 months with acute lesions were killed for analysis. This August, calves as young a 3 to 4 months with apparent lesions were harvested for analysis.
But the analysis showed the apparent early lesions on the 3-month-old animals were not hoof disease.
"What's really holding us from getting an answer is we have not yet got an animal at the stage of the disease where it's informative about what's going on,'' said Dr. Tom Besser of Washington State University. "We're either looking at animals that don't have any lesions yet…or we have animals where the disease has run its course and the hoof is cracked and infected.''
Besser said samples need to come from limping elk with more or less normal hooves in the winter of their first year.
"We really didn't realize how fast this disease process must go from initial effects to terminal effects,'' he added.
"We're waiting on a sample that hasn't been taken yet,'' said Chris Madsen of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
The work group will meet again in January. Several members bemoaned the slow pace of finding a potential fix to elk hoof disease.
"None of us want to wait,'' said Sandra Jonker, regional wildlife program manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We all want to know the answers. This is an enigma to so many.''