Hunters doubt diagnosis of hoof disease cause

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Hunters and wildlife watchers who recently filled two meetings about elk hoof disease don’t all accept the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s theory about what is causing the painful condition.

Several people who attended a March 27 meeting in Longview and another session last week in Cathlamet asked state officials whether herbicide spraying on timberlands might be contributing to the disease that results in misshapen hooves.

“Right now we don’t fully know the role that herbicides play,” Sandra Jonker, regional wildlife manager, said at the Cathlamet meeting.

Still, the agency is sticking with what its scientists believe is the most likely cause of hoof rot: a bacteria that can spread among elk in moist soil.

“Our evidence is very, very strong that it’s an infectious case,” said Kristin Mansfield, a department veterinarian. “In the scientific community, at least, we feel confident that we are on the right track.”

Reports of lame elk or elk with overgrown or missing hooves in the Cowlitz River basin began in the mid-1990s and have spread throughout Southwest Washington. Many people recently testified about seeing limping elk with misshapen hooves — but fewer elk overall than in past years.

So far, department has spent about $50,000 researching hoof rot, with another $200,000 appropriated by the state legislature.

Since 2009, agency employees have killed 43 elk and collected tissue samples from them for testing at five diagnostic laboratories as far away as England. The treponeme bacteria, which has been linked to hoof disease in cows and sheep in many parts of the world, was found in all the elk with hoof disease, Jonker said.

Treponeme is common in other parts of the world but didn’t arrive in the United States until the 1990s, Jonker said.

So far, it hasn’t been seen in other wildlife.

However, one researcher has said the department is misdiagnosing hoof disease.

Dr. Boone Mora, a retired public health researcher who lives in Skamokawa, thinks hoof disease is caused by leptospirosis, a disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

“I feel like there’s been a lot of oversimplification here tonight,” he said in Cathlamet. “I think we need to go back to the drawing board. It fits leptospirosis to a T.”

Mora has asked for a permit to kill three elk and conduct his own research.

Mansfield said the descriptions of leptospirosis don’t match what has been seen in elk here.

Several people at the meetings asked if herbicide spraying is linked to hoof disease.

Mark Smith of Toutle said he suspects that because spraying reduces the amount of vegetation available for elk to eat, the animals become more susceptible to hoof disease. Smith also called for better enforcement of herbicide spraying.

“This hoof disease may be a symptom of something else in a weakened animal,” said Craig Brown of Cathlamet.

Because of spraying, “there is not habitat left for these animals to eat,” said Bruce Barnes of the Mount St. Helens Rescue group. Barnes, a Vancouver resident, said state biologists don’t know what herbicides are being used.

Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, said the department needs to look into the herbicide issue.

“There is a great perception by a lot of people that spraying has something to do with it,” Takko said.

Barnes said he plans to attend the Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting at 8 a.m. Saturday and ask that all elk hunting be suspended this year.

Several people attending the meetings asked why biologists have to kill elk to study hoof disease. Mansfield said taking enough of a hoof sample to study would create a deep wound and tissue samples have to come from internal organs.

In response to a suggestion that the department put out medicated salt blocks to treat elk, Mansfield said a disadvantage would be congregating elk around the blocks, making transmission of the disease more likely.

One of the ideas under discussion is culling the herd of limping elk, perhaps by master hunters who go through a special training session.

“A lot of these issues that have come up we are actively talking about,” said Dave Ware, statewide game manager.

“We’re not ruling anything out,” said Guy Norman, regional director for the department.