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Limping Elk And Deformed Hooves Spreading In Southwest Washington

Sushan Han and Kristin Mansfield
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
A strange disease has plagued Washington elk since 2008, causing their hooves to deform and fall off.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is trying to find out the cause of a fast-spreading hoof disease plaguing elk in southwest Washington.

The disease causes hoof claws to swell, grow long, twist around each other and sometimes slough off completely, leaving some animals limping around on nubs.

Credit Washington Dept. Fish and Wildlife
This map, updated March 2014, shows reports that people have submitted online of limping elk and deformed hooves.

Sandra Jonker, wildlife program manager for southwest Washington, says hoof deformities aren’t usually something to worry about, but the disease's concentration and rapid spread are concerning.

"One of the more sobering understandings that have come out of this effort is that once hoof disease is in a herd or on the landscape, it is really difficult to eliminate it from the area," said Jonker.

Autopsies and initial tests ruled out viruses and toxins as the culprit. Four independent labs are now testing for bacteria. So far, there are indications it’s a species of Treponema bacterium, which is known to affect sheep and cattle. 

Jonker says the department started receiving reports of limping elk in the 1990s.

"But it was just here and there, which can be normal. But then by 2008, we were starting to see this significant increase in the number of observations coming in, and where they were coming from. It started in the lower Cowlitz River Basin and now it's all the way up to Mount St. Helens and west of I-5," she said. 

One of the lingering questions is how many elk are affected, since observations have mostly been submitted online by hunters and hikers.

A working group will meet in Longview later this month to talk about what steps can be taken to slow the spread of the disease. That might involve reducing the density of the elk, containing them to certain area, attempting to treat them, or just letting the disease run its course.