COWLITZ COUNTY, Wash. (KOIN 6) — A mysterious foot disease is wiping out elk from Mount St. Helens all the way to the Columbia River. State biologists think they know what the disease is but said they have no idea how to treat it.
Mark Smith said he has kept an eye on elk that wonder onto his Eco Park Resort and has documented how the elk have struggled to walk after a disease generically called hoof rot has affected the animals.
The hoof rot either causes an elk’s hoof to grow abnormally, which is referred to as slipper toe, or in other cases, the disease causes the hoof to decay away.
Smith said half or more of the elk he sees has hoof rot. Wahkiakum County Commissioner Dan Cothren, who keeps watch on elk 60 miles to the west, shares Smith’s concerns.
“I’m just not happy with this thing taking so long. This thing was noticed in the 90s,” said Cothren, regarding the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s response to the spread of the disease.
Dr. Sandra Jonker with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) said she believes the department is doing all they can to combat the disease.
“I think we are trying really, really hard to get to the bottom of this,” said Jonker.
Finding a treatment: Easier said than done
Officials at WDFW said four independent labs have confirmed a bacteria called treponema is in the elk’s hooves – a bacteria they think lives in the wet soil. However, the department has no idea where the bacteria came from or how to treat it in wild animals.
“I think that’s one of the most sobering findings in this whole process is once the hoof disease is in a herd of elk in the landscape, it’s basically really, really hard or nearly impossible to eliminate,” said Jonker.
Both Smith and Cothren argue there may be multiple diseases, including one called leptospirosis, which has also been found in the elk.
“We’re not looking at the big picture, the total problem. We see a disease, that’s hoof rot, and we assume that’s the only thing we’re looking at,” said Smith.
Smith thinks environment could be a factor, too.
Scientists said they are looking at whether herbicides sprayed on clear cuts and dense forests that prevent grazing grounds have weakened the elk.
Additionally, Smith and Cothren wonder if an elongated hunting season has added to the elks’ stress levels, making them more prone to illness.
Scientists said they have not seen those factors since they started really studying the disease in 2008 when it exploded.
Now, scientists worry hoof rot may spread to Oregon. Officials at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said it is possible there have already been a few hoof rot cases in Oregon although they said it’s common to see elk with such problems in West Oregon for lots of different reasons. Therefore, the few possible cases of hoof rot in Oregon may not be the same thing that is plaguing Washington elk.
“All of us want to know what this is as soon as possible because it’s such a big question and such a big priority, and it’s going to impact what can we do,” said Jonker.
Hoof rot disease effort costs
From July 2013 to February 2014, Washington state has spent $54, 354 on hoof rot disease efforts, which include collection supplies and field staff time.
Even though labs have donated their services, critics said the state has not spent nearly enough.
Jonker said WDFW plans to submit a budget request for $250,000 for the next three years of hoof disease work. WDFW also received $8,000 from a Rocky Mountain Elk foundation grant to help with the lab sample testing, Jonker said.
For additional information concerning the effects of hoof rot and efforts to prevent the spread of this disease, visit WDFW’s website.