WASHINGTON — For the first time, state wildlife managers are euthanizing elk in an attempt to stop the spread of “hoof rot” to eastern Washington.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife announced the decision on April 27, after learning earlier in the month that the disease had made its first appearance in Central Washington.
Hoof rot — officially treponeme-associated hoof disease or TAHD — is a bacterial infection that causes hoof deformities. Infected animals gradually lose their ability to walk, and often die of starvation or secondary infection.
The disease has been a problem in Pacific, Wahkiakum and Cowlitz counties and the western part of Lewis County for years. Over the last decade, it has spread to 11 counties in Western Washington.
Researchers and outdoorsmen have now found clear evidence of hoof rot in Klickitat County — a sign that it’s spreading eastward.
“This is a huge concern for us and a lot of other people,” Eric Gardner, the head of the WDFW wildlife program said in a press release. “This is a terrible disease and there’s no vaccine to prevent it and no proven options for treating free-ranging elk in the field.”
This month, wildlife managers are euthanizing any elk showing signs of the disease near the town of Trout Lake, a small town about 60 miles northeast of Vancouver. They anticipate killing about 20 affected animals.
“This is the first time the department has tried to stop the advance of the disease by removing affected elk,” WDFW hoof disease coordinator Kyle Garrison said. “There’s no guarantee of success, but we believe a rapid response might contain this outbreak given the isolation of Trout Lake and the low prevalence of elk showing symptoms of the disease.”
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has contributed about $2,000 to help defray the costs of the project. WDFW officials held a public meeting to discuss their plans on May 3. They also worked with land-owners to secure permission to track elk on private property.
The first sign of trouble came on April 4, when a Trout Lake resident sent WDFW a deformed hoof from an elk that was killed in a vehicle collision near his home, Garrison said.
On April 17, a WDFW staff team searched the area for other infected elk. They observed at least seven elk walking with a pronounced limp — a common symptom of the disease — and shot one limping animal to obtain hoof samples for testing.
Tests at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the USDA National Animal Disease Center confirmed both elk had hoof disease, Gardner said.
“We need to act quickly if we hope to get ahead of this situation,” Garrison said. “Elk in lowland areas begin to disperse into summer grazing areas by the end of May.”
WDFW has contracted the USDA Wildlife Services to euthanize the animals. Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine will test tissue samples. Pathologists there will conduct post-mortem examinations of the elk and will collect as many tissue samples as possible
WDFW has worked with scientists, veterinarians, tribes and sportsmen to study the disease for about a decade. They’ve learned that elk carry the highly-contagious disease on their hooves, and transport it to other areas. TAHD can affect male and female elk of any age, but so far, there is no evidence that it affects humans. Tests have shown the disease is limited to hooves, and does not appear to affect an animal’s meat or organs.
Hunters and other outdoor recreationists can help to prevent the spread of hoof rot by leaving the hooves of harvested elk at the site, by cleaning their shoes and tires of mud and debris before leaving an area with affected elk, and by reporting any instances of suspected hoof rot to WDFW.
A WDFW map of sick elk sightings since 2012 shows that most of the dead or limping animals in Pacific County have been observed near the Naselle, Grays and Willapa rivers.