Map of areas where limping elk sightings are requested. 

Hunters and hikers who spot limping elk in the woods can now pull out their phones and report the sightings directly to state biologists -- or go online when they get home.

A new website reporting system is part of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s plan to increase its knowledge about the extent of elk hoof disease.

The agency asks that anyone who spots an elk with hoof deformities that is limping or dead in the 10 counties in Southwest Washington report their observations at wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/hoof_disease/. A map on that website shows the department’s primary focus of interest.

Sandra Jonker, WDFW regional wildlife manager, said in a news release that the department is mostly interested in receiving reports outside the primary area of infection centered around Cowlitz County, where the disease is already relatively well-documented.

“Our focus now is on assessing the spread of the disease to other parts of the region,” Jonker said in a news release. “Gaining more information about the incidence and geographical distribution of the disease will help determine how best to manage it.”

Jonker noted that the website is designed to accept reports from the field using mobile phones.

The request for help from hunters is part of WDFW’s plan to step up research on the disease that affects many elk in the region.

Next winter or spring, volunteers will be asked to drive through the woods and count limping and non-limping elk with a goal of determining what percentage of the herd is affected.

WDFW has already done some trial surveys with volunteers to refine the technique for next year’s more extensive effort, said Brooke George, the agency’s new hoof disease coordinator. When the survey technique has been established, a call will be put out for more volunteers, George said.

George has a degree in wildlife biology from Colorado State University and has worked with several state and federal agencies.

WDFW staff are also planning a study for early next year under which elk with hoof rot will be fitted with radio collars and then tracked. Biologists want to monitor how many elk with hoof rot die, whether affected cows give birth and how elk with hoof rot move in relationship to non-afflicted animals.

The agency is also developing criteria for shooting severely affected elk.

Though the idea of culling diseased animals from herds to limit the spread of hoof rot has been discussed in the past, George said WDFW has moved away from that idea. Instead, severely emaciated animals may be put down for humane reasons, she said.

At first, WDFW staff would shoot the emaciated elk, though the agency expects to ask Master Hunters to help. “Those criteria are being developed,” George said. “There are a lot of questions. We don’t have a time line.”

To help prevent the disease from spreading, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission recently approved a new rule requiring hunters in 10 Southwest Washington counties to remove the hooves of any elk they harvest and leave them on-site.

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Tom Paulu is a features writer for The Daily News. He covers Outdoors and Entertainment, among other things. Reach him at 360-577-2540 or tpaulu@tdn.com.


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