KELSO — State officials have unveiled their initial salvo to combat the widespread hoof disease in Mount St. Helens and Willapa Hills elk, including a survey using “citizen science volunteers” and potentially killing severely afflicted animals in a core infection area.
Sandra Jonker, regional program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, explained the state’s plans Wednesday at a meeting of a special group advising the agency on the hoof disease outbreak.
The department received sporadic reports of elk with deformed hoofs in the Cowlitz River basin in the mid-1990s. Since 2008, the disease has increased and spread west to Pacific County, north to Lewis County and south to Clark County.
“Hoof disease on this kind of scale in a wild population we’ve never seen before,” Jonker said.
Four independent laboratories have found Treponema bacteria in hooves of elk with the disease. Treponema is associated with hoof disease in cattle and sheep.
All analyses point to the disease being infectious.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife has been under pressure from hunters and others to develop a plan to deal with elk hoof disease and halt its spread.
Here are some of the details of the agency’s plan:
o Adoption by August of a regulation requiring hunters to leave hooves on site from elk harvested in Southwest Washington.
o Circulation of a flyer on the safety of elk meat prepared jointly by the departments of Fish and Wildlife and Health. Testing shows the disease is limited to the hooves with other tissues — including meat — not affected.
o Hiring this summer of a hoof disease coordinator to work full-time on the problem.
o Developing a cadre of citizen science volunteers to start this fall collecting information on the prevalence of the disease in the elk population and the specific distribution of sick animals.
“It’s a huge landscape to sample,” Jonker said. Protocols will be developed to gather consistent information.
o Initiation of a new study by state biologists to put radio collars on afflicted elk then track the animals’ survival, reproduction and movements relative to healthy elk.
o Identification of a “core area” where severely afflicted will be killed. In the past, the state has referred to the Boistfort Valley in Cowlitz County as the location where hoof disease first became noticeable.
o Identification of a “buffer control zone,” where afflicted elk would be killed.
o Identification of a “perimeter surveillance area,” which would be outside the infected area and would get enhanced surveillance looking for afflicted elk.
Jonker said trying to control wild elk is far different than ranchers dealing sheep or cattle.
“It is very important to acknowledge up front that any approaches that have successfully been used to manage disease in domestic animals will be entirely experimental when applied to free-ranging elk,” she said.
Guy Norman, regional director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the agency has $388,000 in new money in hand to deal with elk hoof disease.
That includes $200,000 from the state’s 2014 supplemental budget, $180,000 from the federal excise tax on hunting equipment and $8,000 for sample analysis from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
The agency is developing its request for the 2015-17 budget period. Norman mentioned $250,000 to support the citizen science effort, veterinary assistance, the survival study and more.
Mark Smith, owner of Eco-Park Resort on the upper North Toutle River, questioned if the amounts mentioned by Norman are enough. The state has 60,000 elk hunters who spend $6 million to $9 million in license, tag and permit fees alone, he added.
“The Mount St. Helens elk herd is the biggest in the state and $250,000 is not a lot of money when you think what the resource is” said Axel Swanson, Clark County senior policy lead.
Several members of the department’s hoof disease advisory group want some afflicted elk captured, kept in an enclosure and different treatments tried.
Several members of the public said they believe the spraying of herbicides by timber companies might be the root cause of elk hoof disease.
Ed Barnes of Clark County said the timber companies should be asked for a five-year moratorium on herbicide use. If the companies won’t voluntarily agree, the state lawmakers should pass legislative requiring a moratorium, he added.
Dan Cothren, a Wahkiakum County commissioner, said it is time for action, not talk.
“We’re getting devastated,” he said. “It’s bad. It one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.”
Jonker said hoof disease is a “huge priority.”
“Who doesn’t want to get to the bottom of this?” she asked.