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WSU gets first elk for hoof disease research program

Salix will serve as ‘host’ or ‘liaison’ for elk participating

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Published: November 30, 2019, 6:00am

LONGVIEW — Washington State University last week received its first elk for a state-funded research program investigating elk hoof disease.

Researchers welcomed Salix, a five-month old bull elk, to the Pullman campus last week, according to a news release.

He will later be taken to the special, $1.2 million research center the university is building for the hoof disease program.

Salix has been kept in isolation since arriving in Pullman, and he recently underwent a “complete and thorough physical examination” to ensure he doesn’t have hoof disease or other health complications, said Charlie Powell, spokesman for the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, which oversees the research program.

Salix passed his exam with flying colors, Powell said.

“He’s about as healthy and lively as you might expect,” Powell said. “We’ve got a lot of photos of him sticking his snout in the camera lens. … He loves people.”

Salix will not be directly a part of the research, said lead scientist Margaret Wild. Instead, he will act as a “host” or “liaison” for the elk participating in the studies, as well as provide an example of what blood, hoof bacteria and other samples look like in healthy elk, she said.

“When we bring in new elk for the studies, he will already be there, so he will be kind of a liaison that can show the new elk what it is to live in a captive facility,” Wild said. “And then we will also have him long-term for control or normal samples … to know what’s normal and compare them to other elk,” she said.

Elk hoof disease is a bacteria-associated syndrome that causes severe lameness in elk due to deformed, overgrown, broken or sloughed hooves. It is commonly known as hoof rot, but scientists use the formal name so as to avoid confusion with another disease in domestic livestock.

Reports of the disease, including sightings of limping elk, have increased dramatically in the last decade. The disease is most prevalent in Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties and the western half of Lewis County, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. However, cases have been confirmed in several other counties across the state, as well as in Oregon and Idaho.

So far, a specific cause for the disease has not been pinpointed, and it is unclear if the disease can pass from one animal to another.

Powell said it is “hard to watch” afflicted elk limping around, so scientists are “as anxious to get underway (with research) as the public.”

“I certainly understand why the public … was upset about seeing limping animals in great numbers,” Powell said. “… This is a horrible problem in elk, and we hope to have some answers as soon as we can, but also at the time time do it in the appropriate scientific manner.”

Salix will live in one of the two, 1.5-acre pastures at the research center, and he will be kept separate from any animals that are exposed to the hoof disease or have the disease, Wild said. Animals with the disease will be kept in bio-secure isolation pens in a concrete building at the facility.

Salix came from a licensed rehabilitation specialist, who bottle-raised the calf after he was orphaned near Mount Rainier. He was too tame to return to the wild, so WSU asked to have him for their research program.

Usually scientists limit captive studies to female elk because they are smaller, less aggressive and easier to handle, Wild said. But Salix is young enough to castrate before he grows antlers, she said.

“Even though he was a bull, we decided to go ahead and take him in and castrate him. … “He will end up looking and pretty much acting like a big cow (elk),” Wild said.

The research center is set to open before the end of 2019, and studies are expected to begin next spring.

WSU’s first study will focus on determining if the elk hoof disease is infectious and transmissible, Wild said.

“(We will be) exposing animals that have healthy hooves to the disease and seeing if they develop the same lesions,” Wild said. “If that happens, then we will be sure that the bacteria or other disease-causing organisms are being transferred from one animal in a contaminated environment to another when all factors are normal.”

More studies will follow from there, including research that can directly inform strategies for managing wild elk herds exposed to the disease.

Wild estimated that there will be up to 20 elk in the facility for most experiments. Scientists also want two or three more healthy liaison elk like Salix.

WSU is working with state wildlife biologists to find “the best source for elk in a place where we can safely acquire them and also where they will be healthy and won’t have been exposed to the (hoof) disease,” Wild said. Studies will begin once the program gets enough elk, she said.

“It’s pretty exciting because Salix really marks the beginning of this research program on the ground with the captive studies,” Wild said. “It’s a big first step for us, and we are looking forward to all the steps that will follow.”

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