State thinks it has cause of elk hoof disease

By Al Thomas, Columbian Outdoors Reporter

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State wildlife managers say they suspect the treponeme bacteria — linked to hoof disease in cows and sheep in many parts of the world — is the cause of deformed and missing hooves in elk in Southwest Washington.

“It’s premature to announce a final diagnosis, but tests from three independent diagnostic labs appear to show an association between the diseased hooves and the presence of treponeme bacteria,” said Sandra Jonker, regional wildlife program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “That’s a real concern, because the options for treating the disease are extremely limited.”’

A public meeting will begin at 6 p.m. April 15 at the Clark Public Utilities community room, 1200 Fort Vancouver Way, to share results and answer questions.

Kristin Mansfield, department epidemiologist, said treponemes have been linked to an increasing incidence of hoof disease in livestock for two decades, but have never been documented in elk or other wildlife.

There is no evidence these bacteria are harmful to humans, she said, noting that tests indicate the disease is limited to hooves and does not affect the animals’ meat or organs.

Mansfield said scientists believe animals pick up and transmit the disease through wet soil, characteristic of the lowlands of Southwest Washington.

Livestock infected with treponeme bacteria may respond to repeated courses of antibiotics, but frequently become re-infected once they are returned to pasture, she said.

“Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for this disease,” Mansfield said. “Livestock that don’t respond to treatment or become reinfected after treatment are usually sent to market and slaughtered.”

Since 2009, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has collected tissue samples from 43 elk for testing at diagnostic laboratories at Washington State University, Colorado State University, the University of Wyoming, the University of Liverpool in England and the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Animal Disease Center.

The agency has collected elk from areas affected and not affected by the disease, Jonker said.

Testing of tissues taken from 11 elk in January will help determine whether treponeme is the primary cause of the disease or bacteria that invade hooves already damaged.

“Test results taken from those samples are due this summer and should help us answer an important question about this disease,” Jonker said.

A 14-member technical advisory group of veterinarians from universities, government agencies and elsewhere will assess the findings of the laboratories and advise on disease control options.

An 18-member work group including county commissioners, hunters, sportsmen’s groups, business owners and others is advising the state on management and research needs.

“As with many wildlife diseases, there are no easy answers to this problem,” Jonker said. “But we need to be ready to take action, because doing nothing is not an option.”

Mark Smith, owner of Eco Park Resort along state Highway 504 east of Toutle and a member of the work group, said he is not confident in the state’s suspicions of the treponeme bacteria. Smith and others met Tuesday with state wildlife director Phil Anderson and a representative of the governor’s office.

The wildlife agency was years late in trying to understand the hoof disease and has been forced to be forthcoming with information, Smith said.

“The arrogance of the department not telling us the full truth is what’s upsetting,” he said.

The wildlife department wants to focus on a common bacteria that can be traced back to agricultural animals, he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission then can vote to eradicate the herd, he added.

Smith said he’s not a microbiologist, but the department is under pressure to find an answer and he does not think it is treponeme.

Studies should be done on live animals, Smith said. He’s offered to enclose elk at his resort for study.

“They don’t study cancer on dead people,” he said. “You study disease in live organisms.”

Southwest Washington forests are treated with herbicides following logging at three times the rate of elsewhere in the state, he contended.

“It’s not just elk,” Smith said. “Elk are the alarm. There are lots of problems with lack of habitat and the use of herbicides. It’s effecting grouse. It’s effecting blacktail deer. There are deer now with hoof disease.”

Hoof disease is getting worse, not better, he said.

“This is a very serious matter for future generations,” said Smith.

The department will ask the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to adopt a new regulation requiring hunters to remove the hooves of any elk taken in Southwest Washington and leave them in the area to prevent the disease from spreading.