The agency’s review was met with frustration, skepticism and fear that too little was being done and too many healthy elk would pay the price of current management decisions.
According to Sandra Jonker, a regional wildlife manager for the WDFW, five adult female elk from the Cowlitz river basin area were harvested in 2009 after the number of reports and the geographic scope of reported ailing elk grew. The harvested elk proved to have chronic cases of hoof disease. Researchers and veterinarians surmised that they might find earlier stages of the disease in younger elk, and three more harvests were done until it was concluded that three to nine month old elk held the key to their research. Younger than that they showed little change to the hoof and there was no sign of infection or inflammation.
“The disease seems to be limited to the hooves,” Jonkers said. “Process of elimination is what we’ve been working on. We’ve been working with three laboratories: the University of Liverpool, Washington State University and the USDA National Animal Disease Center. They have tested for viruses and toxins and trace minerals. They are pursuing bacteriology to rule out known hoof diseases.
“The Treponema species has been detected in all collections and in all three independent laboratories,” Jonkers continued. “Treponema are known to be highly associated with hoof disease in cattle and sheep. The rapid appearance and spread is similar to when Treponema was first introduced to the US in the 1970s.”
Still the WDFW and researchers haven’t ruled out other possibilities and have questions about herbicides, and the effect of changes in land management on herds. Questions about how to move forward after they diagnose the problem remain.
“It’s really difficult to eliminate a hoof disease,” Jonkers said. “How do we manage the disease on the landscape? Do we reduce the density of elk? Do we try to contain it somehow? Do we treat them? Do we let the disease run its course?”
“What about all the permits that we are giving away?” asked Shane Pfenniger. “There are 60 permits for the Grays River area. When they are dying naturally, why are we giving away more permits and taking away good elk? We’re extending hunting seasons. We’re not giving them a chance.”
Jonkers pointed out that the decision had been made with the input of several landowners over a period of time to address damage caused by the elk.
“You’ve created a GMU (game management unit),” Steve Gacke of Naselle said. “It’s a huge area and 99 percent of that land is not agricultural.”
“The problem with the Grays River Valley,” Wahkiakum County Commissioner Dan Cothren said to the panel, “is that the timber companies have logged everything on those ridges just above the fields so there is very little vegetation. Therefore you’ve got all the elk in the fields. They run them off, but they are going to come back the next day. There are a lot of healthy ones in there. You are going to kill all the healthy ones off and we’re not going to have any offspring.”
“You are not really benefiting the farmer," Cothren continued. “The elk are still going to be there. What we need to do is do some kind of program to build fences. That is where you going to help the farmer. We need to do something proactive to be more productive in helping the elk.”
Mike Linn of Skamokawa wondered why the WDFW didn’t treat the elk the same way cattle and sheep were treated for hoof rot.
“You can treat them,” Kristin Mansfield, veterinarian for the WDFW said, “but they usually become infected again.”
“Why don’t you do it on an experimental basis in a small area?” asked Linn. “There are obvious opportunities for experiments. It seems you are not willing to spend the money to do it.”
Karen Bertroch spoke with affection for the Grays River herd, which she watches daily from her home.
“They live with us. They are like our own private herd. What can we do to help you? Can I call you when one dies so you don’t have to randomly kill them to test them?” she asked.
“I think we’re going to need help, personally,” said Guy Norman, regional WDFW director. “Were trying to concentrate on what is causing it. We’re essentially there or very close. We’ve got to work with the public to decide what to do about it.
“Treatment, is that possible? We’re not sure. Changes in management? General approach to hunting and permits, we’re not ruling anything out. We are very interested in turning this into a better situation than it is.”
Cathlamet resident Craig Brown suggested darting the elk for testing while they were still alive but Mansfield pointed out that the procedure to gather tissue samples from the hooves would be invasive and could possibly cause an infection in what might otherwise be a healthy animal.
“A live elk could be checked for its blood,” argued Brown. “Perhaps your have a preconception that Treponema is it and you’re doing a study that is too focused. The hooves could be a symptom of something else in a weakened animal.”
The talk turned to herbicides and the possibility of another diagnosis, leptospira. One attendee demanded better communication and another wanted a finer account of the money that had been spent to pursue the issue.