Elk Hoof Bill Clears Washington Senate, Heads For House

A bill shifting the lead agency researching hoof rot in Western Washington elk cleared the Senate on a 49-0 vote yesterday.

Substitute Senate Bill 5474 puts Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in charge of monitoring the disease that’s laming elk in the state’s southwestern corner and may have been found in a Whatcom County elk last September, as well as coming up with potential solutions for it.

While subject to a legislative appropriation — estimated to cost three-quarters of a million dollars the first two years, and roughly $584,000 every year thereafter — it would put the Department of Fish and Wildlife in the back seat if the bill passes the House, where it’s now headed, and is signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee.

A WDFW GRAPHIC SHOWS THE GRADUAL EFFECTS OF HOOF ROT IN ELK. (WDFW)

WSU was one of several institutions that WDFW sent samples of diseased hooves to several years ago to figure out what was causing them to deform and sometimes break off, with the diagnosis coming back as a form of digital dermatitis caused by the treponeme bacteria that’s common in livestock.

But the pace of doing something, anything about it has gnawed on hunters and others concerned over its spread to other elk herds as well as cattle and other domestic animals.

“Hoof disease is a very serious concern for the future of the state’s elk herds and this bill gets us started on a real solution,” said Sen. Kirk Pearson, the bill’s sponsor and chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee, in a press release out late this morning. “Despite the alarming spread of this disease, I still had WDFW managers telling me that sometimes wild animals just die, as though this wasn’t a big problem. We can’t wait any longer for them to understand how important it is that we stop and eradicate this disease.”

His original bill would have allowed licensed hunters to shoot limpers on sight, year-round, but that part was stricken after sportsmen and WDFW said that that would effectively put a target on every big bull in the state.

Still, it sent a pretty clear message that Pearson was serious about the issue, which WDFW says it’s taking seriously as well.

“We have been talking to Sen. Pearson, and assured him that the department shares his sense of urgency in containing and eradicating this disease,” says Eric Gardner, who heads up WDFW’s Wildlife Program. “But the fact remains that there is no quick fix for some diseases, whether chronic wasting disease, rabies, or hoof disease in elk. The livestock industry has worked for decades to control a similar type of hoof disease in domestic animals, yet it remains the most common form of hoof disease in cattle.”

A presentation made last fall by Dr. Sandra Jonker, the state wildlife manager whose region is at the epicenter of the disease, before Pearson’s committee outlined WDFW’s four priorities moving forward: understanding its prevalence, distribution and impacts, and removing severely impacted elk.

The capture of 71 infected elk and 23 uninfected ones as controls in 2015 for a multi-year study has yielded some initial information — those with the disease have lower survival and pregnancy rates than those without — but biologists say they need a couple more years of data to make an evaluation.

WDFW has also been collecting citizen reports online, and plans call for taking to the air this spring to get a better handle on how many elk are actually affected.

“The department continues to work with an array of universities, diagnostic labs and wildlife agencies to understand the disease and hopefully find an effective way to address it,” Gardner says.

A section in the bill bars WDFW from translocating elk out of disease-stricken areas remains, though it could do so to monitor animals.

SSB 5474 will next most likely land in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, the chairman of which is an elk hunter himself, Rep. Brian Blake.

“At Sen. Pearson’s invitation, the department plans to submit some friendly amendments to the bill when it is addressed by the House,” Gardner says. “Those amendments are designed to help clarify WSU’s role investigating the disease issue in consultation with the department. WDFW knows that this issue is important to many people, and ultimately, we appreciate any additional support or state resources being dedicated to the problem.”

For more, see The Daily Evergreen‘s article on this.

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