As if wildlife managers didn’t have enough problems with the St. Helens elk herd already, large numbers of the animals are now suffering from deformed hooves — the worst cases slowly starving to death — and biologists are not sure what’s causing it.
“It’s not classic hoof rot that we see in cattle and sheep,” Kristin Mansfield, DVM, a state Department of Fish & Wildlife vetrinarian, told Northwest Sportsman today. “And we’ve ruled out underlying systemic disease and toxins in the environment.”
It’s affecting all age classes and both sexes too — yearlings, cows, bulls. For photos, see pages 2 and 3 of this thread on hunting-washington.com.
Mansfield will present her findings as well as look for ideas from fellow wildlife biologists on what’s behind the mystery at a Wildlife Disease Association conference next week in Blaine, Wash.
WHILE PART OF THE 10,000-plus-strong St. Helens herd is coping with less and less summer forage in the mountains, this new problem is striking elk in the lowlands along I-5. And though scattered reports of elk with hoof problems have come in for decades across the state, they’ve taken off the past three years here, says state wildlife biologist Pat Miller.
“We are very, very much concerned about this, but are at the beginning stages of the investigation,” he said.
Limping elk have been seen everywhere from Centralia on the north to Woodland on the south as well as west in Grays Harbor and Pacific counties, he says, and there have also been a few reports from “upland industrial forest habitat.”
Affected animals have “long and deformed hooves which slough off the horn of the hoof, exposing the bone. It’s very painful to walk around,” Mansfield says. “They’re often emaciated and nutritionally compromised. What happens is they starve to death.”
Eighty percent of the herds observed by biologists last winter had affected members, and within those groups, anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of the individuals showed signs of the problem, according to Mansfield.
“It’s really heartbreaking to see these herds,” she says.
While WDFW looked at the issue two years ago, numerous Southwest Washington hunters reported seeing or shooting limping or deformed elk last fall, and so earlier this year, the state began their new investigation.
“Last March we euthanized some animals affected by it and did more testing,” says Mansfield.
That led them to rule out typical hoof rot, disease and pollution, but she says it could be related to copper or selenium deficiencies, a result either of farmers’ treatments of their fields — liming, spraying — or uptake by plants of those minerals in the soils. She says that acid rain in Europe has been shown to affect mineral levels in plants.
The St. Helens herd has been in the news in recent years. Elk around Mt. St. Helens have seen their forage base reduced as the forest around the volcano continues to grow back in since the May 18, 1980 eruption. Two of the past four winters have seen winterkills of 63 and 150 animals on just a portion of the state’s Mt. St. Helens Wildlife Area, known as the Mudflow. WDFW has fed the herd that gathers in the isolated deep-mountain valley hay the past two winters, as well as expanded permit hunts.
And in urban areas, growing numbers of elk have become problematic for golf courses and orchards. New this year, modern firearm and muzzleloader hunters can take antlerless elk in the Stella game unit around Longview and Kelso; previously, it was a 3-point minimum.
AS THE COUNTDOWN TO THIS year’s seasons begins — bow kicks off Sept. 8 — the official advice to hunters who may find an elk in their sights here is to “use good common sense,” says Miller.
“Limper? No. Hoof rot on the leg? Don’t eat the bad part,” he says. “These are wild animals. We don’t make guarantees on the quality of the meat.”
Local archers, riflemen and muzzleloaders may also hear soon from WDFW.
“We are conducing a hunter survey of the affected area,” says Mansfield.
It will help determine the geographical extent of the problem, and, repeated over several years, will tell the agency whether the problem is growing or not, she says.