State to take elk calves for hoof rot research

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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State wildlife biologists plan to kill and collect samples from elk calves in several locations to help learn the cause of hoof disease in elk in Southwest Washington.

Starting this month, up to five young elk will be taken from private forest land in Pacific County for a comparative study with elk from the Cowlitz River Basin, where the disease had spread rapidly since 2008.

"We want to learn why this is happening and what's causing it,'' said Sandra Jonker, regional wildlife program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It's a big challenge.''

The hoof disease results in broken, deformed hooves and lameness that can hinder an elk’s ability to survive.

"The scientific literature suggests as many as 40 possible causes of hoof disease in domestic animals, ranging from bacterial infection to nutritional deficiencies,” said Dr. Kristin Mansfield, department veterinarian. “We have to understand the cause of this problem in elk before we can have any hope of managing it in our state.”

Mansfield said the condition found in Southwest Washington appears to be distinct from hoof diseases found in livestock and other wild animals.

To help narrow the search for the cause, calves will be used in the study because they are less likely to have other health problems that may affect the findings, she said.

In early March, state biologists will collect seven to 10 young elk from the Cowlitz River basin for the study, as well as a second control group of up to five elk from western Yakima County.

Jonker said the Pacific County elk would provide unaffected animals from a similar habitat type and the western Yakima County elk will provide unaffected animals from a different habitat type.

All samples will be submitted to Washington State University, Colorado State University, the University of Wyoming, and possibly universities in England and Australia for analysis.

The problem is to understand the possible causes of hoof deformities, which could be bacterial, viral, toxins, genetics, parasites, nutrition, behavioral or a combination, she said.

The hoof disease in Southwest Washington appears to be unique, but veterinarians in Australia-New Zealand may be seeing similar symptoms, Jonker said.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife has made arrangements to donate meat from healthy elk that is suitable for consumption.

The agency encourages hunters and others who see an elk with deformed hooves to report their observations online at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/hoof_rot/reporting.