Over the past decade, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has received a growing number of reports of elk hobbled by missing or misshapen hooves in southwest Washington. This is a major concern for hunters, area residents and state wildlife managers alike. Analysis of tissue from deformed hooves indicates the condition is likely caused by a bacterial disease similar to one found in livestock.
Since 2008, the disease has spread from the Cowlitz River Basin to Pacific, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Clark and Wahkiakum counties, affecting the St. Helens and Willapa Hills elk herds. Scientists believe the bacteria are transmitted through the wet soil of lowland areas.
Hunters are required to remove the hooves of any elk taken in Game Management Units 501-564 and 642-699 in southwest Washington and leave them on site to minimize the spread of hoof disease in elk.
Test results of diseased hooves sent to five diagnostic laboratories since 2013 point to infectious treponeme bacteria, which have been linked to digital dermatitis in domestic sheep and cattle. A 16-member technical panel of veterinarians and researchers, formed by WDFW to review test results from affected elk, has supported those findings.
First reported in Italy in 1974, digital dermatitis now occurs in livestock throughout the United States and other countries, but has never before been documented in elk or other wildlife. There is no evidence that the bacteria are harmful to humans, and tests have shown that the disease does not affect animals' meat or organs. However, there is no vaccine for the disease and no proven options for treating it in the field.
WDFW continues to work with scientists here and abroad to learn more about treponeme-associated hoof disease (TAHD), and has launched several new initiatives to guide management of elk herds affected by it:
Over the next four years, state wildlife managers will monitor 78 cow elk fitted with radio-collars in the Mount Saint Helens area to gauge the effects of TAHD on elk survival and reproduction.
In the spring of 2015, WDFW conducted a field survey involving 220 citizen volunteers to help determine the proportion of elk affected by the disease in 10 southwest Washington counties. Volunteers and department staff drove 7,000 miles and observed more than 250 groups of elk to support that study. WDFW also encourages the public to report observations of elk with hoof deformities using the reporting tool on this page.