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Limping, Lame Wild Elk Stricken With Perplexing Hoof Disease

The state Fish and Wildlife departments in Washington and Oregon are seeking -- and getting -- help from hunters and hikers to track a perplexing epidemic. It's a hoof disease that causes heartbreaking scenes of limping or lame elk.

The bacterial disease that deteriorates hooves was first noticed in two large elk herds in southwest Washington, but it has since spread north and south. State biologists want more eyes in the woods and have set up separate Oregon and Washington online portals to take reports of limping elk or dead elk with hoof deformities.

Sandra Jonker is a state wildlife program manager based in Vancouver, Washington. She says biologists are still wrestling with how the disease spreads and how to contain it.

"We've all come to the realization that once hoof disease is in the herd and on the landscape, (it is) extremely difficult to eliminate,” Jonker said. “The challenge is really how do we manage the disease."

Testing shows the disease is limited to the animals' hooves and doesn't contaminate the elk meat or organs. There’s no evidence this poses a human health threat.

On its website, WDFW wrote there are "no proven options for treating" the elk hoof disease in the field. The responsible bacteria were identified as coming from the genus Treponema. A similar hoof disease in livestock can be treated with antibiotics and foot baths. Ranchers control the long-known risk by keeping pens clean.

In a briefing earlier this week before the Washington Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee, Jonker described multiple ongoing studies on elk survival rates, population impacts, disease transmission pathways and containment strategies.

"It is important to acknowledge up front that any approach that has successfully been used to manage disease in domestic animals will be entirely experimental when applied to free-ranging elk," she said.

Updated maps posted by ODFW and WDFW show the extent of citizen observations and confirmed detectionsof the elk hoof disease. The Willapa Hills and Mount St. Helens elk herds in southwest Washington are feeling the brunt of the epidemic. Somehow the disease recently leapfrogged northward over several unaffected counties to infect elk in Skagit County.

ODFW's elk hoof disease map shows a lower density of observations and confirmed cases. The majority of Oregon's limping elk sightings come from the northwestern corner of the state, across the Columbia River from where the epidemic started in southwest Washington. Elk are known to occasionally swim across the broad river. But there are also a smattering of disease detections hundreds of miles away in the foothills and Blue Mountains of northeast Oregon.

“Observations reported by the public are critical in mapping where the disease currently exists and how the distribution is changing,” ODFW District Wildlife Veterinarian Julia Burco said in a statement last month. “There is still a lot to learn about this new disease in Oregon and every new observation helps.”

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.