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The Department of Fish and Wildlife is putting more effort toward coping with elk hoof disease -- but not enough for some people who spoke at a meeting in Kelso on Wednesday.

WDFW will hire a new hoof disease coordinator and will put radio collars on some diseased animals to track them, according to Sandra Jonker, the agency’s wildlife program manager for Southwest Washington.

Agency biologists also will propose a new hunting regulation that requires the misshapen hooves of diseased elk taken by hunters to be left in the field to curb the spread of the condition. The Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider that proposal this summer.

Reports of lame elk or elk with overgrown or missing hooves in the Cowlitz River basin began in the mid-1990s and have spread throughout Southwest Washington. WDFW has convened a group of scientists who are working to identify the cause of the disease. The researchers, who have sent tissue samples from diseased elk to five diagnostic laboratories as far away as England, believe the disease is caused by the treponeme bacteria, which has been linked to hoof disease in cows and sheep in many parts of the world.

That bacteria can’t be transmitted to people, and WDFW says that the meat from limping elk is safe to eat.

However, one researcher and his supporters continue to question the official diagnosis. Dr. Boone Mora, a retired public health researcher who lives in Skamokawa, thinks hoof disease is caused by leptospirosis, a disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

“I’m probably by myself except for a lot of the public,” Mora told the hoof disease working group. “You think you know what it is, maybe, but there’s some serious disagreement on this.”

Several people at recent meetings and the one this week have suggested that herbicide spraying on private timberlands is linked to hoof disease. “You can’t say we have an honest investigation unless we’re looking at herbicides,” Jon Gosch said. Several people asked WDFW to suggest that timber companies voluntarily quit spraying.

“Challenge the timber companies to find out if it is or is not spray,” said Shawn Nyman of Longview.

Krystal Davies, who keeps horses east of Kelso, submitted a statement to the group in which she drew a link between elk hoof disease and the laminitis that afflicts her horses. “It is my belief that herbicides and pesticides are the root cause of the plummeting health in the free-roaming elk in Southwest Washington,” Davies wrote.

Dr. Kara Whittaker, senior scientist for the Washington Forest Law Center in Seattle, called for “a rigorous study of the link between herbicides and hoof disease ...” Whittaker, who phoned in her comments, suggested that WDFW conduct toxicology tests on elk to detect the presence of herbicides.

Dr. Kristin Mansfield, a WDFW veterinarian, said there’s no such thing as a test for toxins in elk, and even if there were, that wouldn’t prove a toxin caused hoof rot.

Jonker said there’s no evidence of herbicides being associated with hoof disease.

The hoof rot group spent the morning on a field trip to view areas where Weyerhaeuser Co. has compared the effects of spraying and not spraying herbicides, and of fencing to exclude deer and elk.

During that outing, Dr. Vickie Tatum, a herbicide specialist for the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, told the hoof disease group that herbicides target specific actions in plants that don’t occur in animals. Dr. John Cook, an elk researcher who also works for the NCASI, pointed out that herbicides are used in Oregon and the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and there’s no hoof disease there.

Mark Smith of Toutle, a candidate for Cowlitz County commissioner, suggested studying a fenced-in herd of elk and treating those with hoof disease.

“It costs a lot of money to have a live elk herd,” and disease can spread among them, Cook responded.

Former Cowlitz County commissioner Axel Swanson suggested that hunters be granted a “humane harvest” tag that would allow them to kill a diseased elk in addition to a healthy one. “We’d have to trust people,” Swanson said. Guy Norman, WDFW regional manager, said the idea is worth discussing.

Jonker said WDFW is considering some sort of culling of the worst animals -- despite questions about how effective this would be because hoof disease is new among wild elk.

“We’ve never seen this before,” she said.

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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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