So many questions still surround the hoof disease outbreak in Southwest Washington elk. And despite involvement by national laboratories and nine universities, the answers are elusive and coming at a painfully slow rate.
The first meeting of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Hoof Disease Public Working Group was in Vancouver on Wednesday. The panel includes county commissioners, timber company representatives, academics, 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. The epicenter was the Boistfort-Wildwood Valley.
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.
So much is not known, including how the disease is transmitted and if there are any treatments. Obviously, treatments possible on domestic livestock will not work on elk in the wild.
Sandra Jonker, regional wildlife program manager, said it's not known yet how prevalent the disease is in the wild population.
The agency started collecting samples in 2009. 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 acute lesions were harvested for analysis. Similar age elk in unaffected populations also were harvested.
Analyses includes checking of organs, tissue, muscle, trace minerals, parasites and blood. The disease affects males and females equally, all ages, any hoof and there are no reports of an increase in domestic livestock hoof diseases.
Testing shows no evidence of significant inflammation or infection above the hooves, even in severely crippled animals.
"That is a really important finding for us and a frequently asked question,'' Jonker said.
And while research continues, the thorny question of what to do about managing the St. Helens and Willapa Hills elk herds persists.
Barry Armstrong of Sierra Pacific, a private timber company, suggested an aggressive culling of diseased elk.
"We could have elk cross the (Columbia) river and spread it into northwest Oregon, or show up in Yellowstone,'' Armstrong said. "The first priority is to contain it.''
"Euthanizing an elk that is going to die a horrible death makes all the sense in the world,'' said Bob Schlecht of Bob's Sporting Goods in Longview.
The panel talked about trying to stop the geographic range of diseased animals, but some members opposed a large-scale euthanization program.
Axel Swanson of Castle Rock said he is uncomfortable with the jump to culling the herds so soon.
"It's different when eight out of 10 are limping,'' Swanson said. "We don't know how long elk will live with this. We might be putting to death prematurely.''
Jonker said a technical team believes the disease is here to stay and the question is how to manage the herd.
Mark Smith, owner of Eco-Park in the Toutle River valley, said hunting seasons are too long, the elk are harassed too much and their nutrition suffers as a result.
Dan Cothren, a Wahkiakum County commissioner, agreed hunting seasons are too long.
"Those poor elk don't get any chance,'' Cothren said. "They're moving all the time.''
James Misner, a Cowlitz County commissioner, said there needs to be a look at changes in forest practices.
Bruce Barnes, a hunter from Vancouver, said private timber companies are "nuking the clearcuts,'' with herbicides after logging to suppress competing vegetation also eaten by elk.
"Maybe make a suggestion to these timber companies for the next five years not to defoliate their clearcuts and if this problem clears up you will see the problem is a nutrition problem,'' Barnes said.
None of the timber company representatives responded to Barnes' comments.
The working group will meet next in early December, then likely again in January or February.