The Wahkiakum County Eagle - Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

County urged to study elk hoof rot disease


September 7, 2017

Should Wahkiakum County's heath department investigate the cause of elk hoof rot disease?

Dr. Boone Mora, a Skamokawa resident and a retired public health officer, thinks so.

On Tuesday, he met with the county board of commissioners, who also serve as the board of health, to urge the board to undertake that study.

However, after hearing from health department staff, commissioners took no action.

"I don't see any clear path forward," said commission Chair Blair Brady. "We'll keep pressing the state lab to do more."

Mora maintains the cause of hoof rot disease is leptospira bacteria. The leptospirosis infection can be transmitted to humans, Mora said, and because of that, he feels the board of health should act to protect the human population.

Commissioners received a letter from attorney Heidi Heywood, representing Mora, pointing out that the local health officer has authority to control and prevent the spread of any dangerous, contagious or infectious diseases that may occur within their jurisdiction.

Mora proposed that the health department undertake a testing program which could provide information that could lead to treating elk herds.

"We (public health) can get to it and get the problem solved," Mora said. "Public health can take elk that are sick and have them tested and move forward from that.

"Eighty-seven percent of the cases of leptospirosis are mis-diagnosed. That is huge."

County health officials, however, didn't support the idea.

Dr. Jennifer Vines, the county's health officer, told the board that leptospirosis is incredibly rare.

"I can tell you that in a typical year in the state of Washington, we have zero cases of leptospirosis. The range in years when we do see it across the state is 2-4 cases.

"Our prevention message stays the same, that people take the usual precautions around handling wild animals.

"I don't see any change in behavior or public health intervention that would result from knowing more about the state of our elk.

"So I have to say that if we're talking about spending taxpayer dollars on public health responsibility, people in Wahkiakum County would see more benefit in spending that money on what we know causes a lot of disease, things like diet, physical activity, tobacco, substance abuse, early childhood services, access to basic health care, and reproductive services.

"So, that is my opinion on this issue."

Health department director Sue Cameron said her staff looked into the financial implications. Financial officer Dean Coutz said he looked into testing programs and concluded that a scientifically acceptable sample would be 50 tests, costing around $5,261 in equipment and training.

Training would be important, he said, for the county could have liability if volunteers gathering samples became infected.

The department would probably need to add another staff member to coordinate the large research project, Cameron said in a written report to the commission. The program doesn't fall under any current revenue streams, she said.

Cothren and Commissioner Blair Brady envisioned a smaller effort.

"You could do two samples, and if it's evident, do more," Brady said.

Cothren said he wants the health department to have the opportunity to do the testing. Volunteers could be trained and would only operate during elk hunting seasons.

"What's the ultimate goal," asked Commissioner Mike Backman, "to save people or to save elk.

"When you do this, you're going to open a can of worms."

"The concern is people and elk," Mora responded. "At the last estimate, we have 50 percent less elk.

"I would disagree with the data that the doctor (Vines) presented, " he added. "People die from leptospirosis, but they don't know it's there. It's very hard to identify."

The 2017 state legislature passed laws assigning hoof rot research to the Washington State University and its school of veterinary medicine.

Mora and Commissioner Dan Cothren have been members of an advisory committee set up by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to study hoof rot.

WDFW biologists have concluded a different bacteria, trepinome, causes hoof rot. Mora disagrees with the conclusion, he and Cothren have unsuccessfully pressed officials to consider leptospirosis.


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