WSU: Elk hoof disease will not be easy fix

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Researchers at Washington State University warn that a solution to Southwest Washington’s hoof disease problem might not arrive any time soon.

Despite the fact that Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill  which directed WSU Vancouver to monitor elk, with help from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the university’s scientists are still waiting on the Legislature to determine where funding for this project will come from.

Charlie Powell, the public information officer for WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said that although they have done some analysis of hoof rot samples from 2009-13, they are still trying to discover what the exact catalyst for the disease might be.

“A lot of people will speculate that there’s a simple answer to this,” Powell said. “Quite frankly, when it comes to biology, there are no simple answers. These things are complex, and we’ll just have to see what we find.”

Powell also said that even if they eventually find what’s causing hoof rot in native elk, implementing a solution is no easy task.

“That’s the million-dollar question: How do you implement something to prevent disease and treat disease in wild animals?” Powell said. “Managing diseases in wildlife is very difficult. They’re wild; They’re not penned up like domestic animals are, and it’s difficult to provide effective treatment or preventative measures.”

According to Dr. Kristen Mansfield from WDFW, the hoof rot samples sent to WSU’s Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab at its Vancouver campus came from three different areas: One group was from Cowlitz and Clark Counties, which are known disease areas for elk. The second was from nearby counties that didn’t have known issues with hoof rot, including Pacific County, as a control group. Finally, WSU also analyzed elk from the east half of the Cascades in Yakima and Kittitas Counties.

Scott Harris, who works for WDFW’s Montesano branch, has collected samples in the area, and has also assisted tribes in that area, such as the Skokomish Tribal Nation and the Quinault tribe, with monitoring hoof rot.

The researcher agreed with Powell that implementation for solving the hoof rot dilemma would be almost impossible, partially because it can be difficult to tell when elk actually suffer from the condition.

“I’d like to be optimistic, but we’ve got to be realistic at this point,” Harris said. “The big thing is if (researchers) can figure out how it is transferred, or what other underlying reasons there are. Directly responsible or indirectly impossible, they believe there’s other environmental conditions out there. There’s a lot to look at.”

Both of the two WDFW representatives, as well as Powell, agree that pesticides and/or herbicides are most likely not the cause of the hoof rot explosion.

Some local sportsmen disagree.

Gene Crocker, a member of Cowlitz Game and Anglers for 20 years, has noticed how hoof rot has decimated Southwest Washington’s elk population. He thinks that the cause is actually quite simple, despite what Powell said.

“I found out that after (Weyerhaeuser) logs downed trees, they spray it with a herbicide,” Crocker said. “This kills brown-leaf plants for 3-5 years. If you do this for a certain amount of time, it kills the plants that animals eat to stay healthy.”

Crocker had a very strong response to the researchers and scientists who believe that man-made chemicals aren’t affecting the local population of elk and other wildlife.

“They don’t know what they’re talking about,” the lifelong Cowlitz resident said. “They haven’t been here like I have for 78 years and seen how things have changed. Deer run around with hair loss. Pigeons have disappeared completely. We have very few grouse. Honeybees have ceased to exist in the wild.”

Mark Smith, owner and builder of Eco Park resort near Mt. St. Helens, said he too has witnessed the decimation of the area’s elk and deer population.

Although he is pleased that Gov. Inslee has called upon WSU researchers to study the disease, the resort owner, like Crocker, believes man-made chemicals used in logging clearcuts is a part of the problem, along with animal overpopulation and lingering effects from the Mt. St. Helens eruption.

“Ninety percent of all the chemicals that (Weyerhaeuser) uses say ‘don’t use on grazing land,’” Smith said. “I have been asking the question for quite a while now, why do we allow forest land to be sprayed with non-grazing areas, when deer and other wildlife graze in these areas?”

Powell says that he’s talked with frustrated citizens like Crocker and Smith before, but urged hunters and conservationists to be patient and wait through the process.

“We certainly understand the public’s urgency, and their concern for these wild animals,” Powell said. “Anytime that you have difficulty finding the cause of a disease, it becomes frustrating for people professionally, and I would say that’s where we’re at right now, and we just have to wait and see what we’ve determined.”