Wildlife biologists are on the lookout for a disease that afflict the hooves of elk and severely inhibits the animals’ ability to move around. In the wild, of course, that also inhibits their ability to survive. Scientists on many fronts are trying to solve many mysteries regarding the disease, and the hunting community is being called on to help. While the disease known as treponeme associated hoof disease — TAHD — has not yet hit Central Washington herds, it has reached southwest Washington and Eastern Oregon, and scientists say hunters will play a critical role in gauging its possible spread into prime elk habitat in Yakima and Kittitas counties.
It’s serious enough that the state government has authorized more than $1.5 million for Washington State University to research the disease’s causes and possible approaches for prevention and treatment. There remains much to learn about both.
Scientists aren’t sure how the disease is spread, and there is no known cure for TAHD, which is caused by a bacteria and has afflicted dairy cattle, goats and sheep. It appears to be more infectious than another disease that is known as “hoof rot” and tends to affect only one rear hoof. It can progress quickly and render a healthy elk into one that can barely walk in just a few months.
Studies are ramping up; in addition to WSU and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, researchers at Colorado State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are looking into the disease. Their efforts will depend on hunters in the field. The state has used volunteers to seek out diseased elk, and elk-hunting permit holders who fill out annual hunting reports also see a question about elk hoof disease. Hunters can look for several symptoms.
The disease causes deformed, broken or missing hooves, along with what one state Wildlife Department staffer calls “a pretty profound smell” in harvested elk. While those symptoms are decidedly unpleasant, scientists say the harvested meat is safe to eat, and the disease doesn’t seem to affect humans.
The disease’s means of transmission is still a mystery, though it may be through contact with bacteria in mud. To prevent the spread of the bacteria, scientists say hunters should disinfect their vehicles, boots and packs.
While the disease doesn’t appear to threaten humans directly, it is reducing elk populations in affected regions of the Northwest, and thus reducing hunting opportunities. Hunters can perform a valuable service by helping scientists gather information to prevent further outbreaks — and perhaps find a cure.
* Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Frank Purdy.