Since the mid-1990s, reports of limping elk and those with hoof deformities have been increasing in southwest Washington. For many years officials thought the sporadic reports were nothing out of the ordinary, but they are now growing more concerned after recent research suggests that an infectious bacterium from the Treponema genus may be to blame. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), the strange deformities cause elk hooves to become overgrown and twisted or fall off entirely. While the disease may not be fatal in itself, it can cripple elk and lead to a slow death.

“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,” DFW wildlife manager Sandra Jonker told KPLU.

Hoof diseases are hardly uncommon and can occur in both wild animals and domestic livestock. Common causes include infectious bacteria, malnutrition, toxicity, and metabolic irregularities. Jonker said that hoof deformities are not usually a big concern for wildlife managers, but the rapidity of the Washington strain’s spread is worrying. Biologists believe that the disease is unique to the region’s free-ranging Roosevelt elk. Sightings of the afflicted animals were primarily reported by hunters and hikers—and reports started spiking in 2008. Sometimes a group of elk would have several animals suffering from the disease, which does not seem to discriminate between males or females. Old and very young elk are especially at risk.

Deformed hooves found in 2008.
Deformed hooves found in Washington in 2008.

The DFW is currently coordinating with other agencies and universities in order to better understand the disease, but officials admit that even if the root cause of the illness is discovered, the department would still have a limited amount of treatment options.

The agency has formed a technical advisory group of veterinarians and biologists to share research data and find new management options. The DFW is also encouraging hunters to report any limping or diseased animals they see. It is not currently known how many elk are affected by the hoof deformities.

In better news, recent surveys have shown that elk are generally doing well in Washington, especially those animals living in the Blue Mountains. According to The Spokesman Review, an aerial survey found about 5,700 elk in the mountains, which is significantly higher than previous years. Officials said those numbers should translate to a good amount of bulls for hunters next season.

Images courtesy Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

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