When Dean Takko hunts, elk with deformed hooves sometimes limp along in fields or lie down to ease their foot pain — “not a pretty thing to watch,” the state senator says.
Southwest Washington for decades has been the center of elk hoof disease, which causes deformed, injured or overgrown hooves in herds in Mount St. Helens and Willapa Hills. Sightings of the disease have skyrocketed in the past decade.
Senate Bill 5474 addresses measures to prevent the spread. It would mandate the state Department of Fish and Wildlife staff to euthanize elk seen limping and prevent transporting elk with hoof disease to other areas without the disease’s presence. It would also allow hunters in Southwest Washington — and much of Western Washington — to kill elk that are seen limping and keep the meat.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, is scheduled for a public hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources.
Takko, D-Longview, supports the bill despite his concerns about hunters taking advantage of the policy and the potential costs. He said it provides practical measures for a problem that the Legislature needs to address.
“It all seems to make good sense to me,” he said. “Not that we’ve turned our back on it, but we certainly haven’t been doing as much as we could do.”
Any “authorized person,” including anyone with a hunting license, would be allowed to kill elk with severe limping in the hunting off-season and without tags. Hunters typically must apply and pay for tags to legally hunt elk at a certain time of the year.
The policy would apply to any area where hoof disease is present, which stretches across 10 counties from the southern state border to the Mason area, according to WDFW.
Mark Smith, a Toutle resident who has been involved in the citizens advisory committee and public working group on hoof disease, said the bill was “overly aggressive” and premature. He and Takko both said they were concerned that the bill doesn’t pay for the added work and expense the mandate would require of the WDFW.
For years, Smith has been advocating for a research center on hoof disease in Southwest Washington to determine the disease’s transmission, contraction and potential prevention. He said more experts need access to live elk with hoof disease and that the WDFW needs to rely less on Washington State University veterinarians, who may be unfamiliar with wildlife.
“We haven’t identified the proper steps or procedures,” he said. “We have not done live animal testing to evaluate what we actually are dealing with. Until we do that ... then I could not support shooting every limping animal in this area. You’re not convincing me that that is going to eradicate it.”
Smith and Takko also said they are concerned it allows hunters too much freedom with little oversight and would allow some to take advantage of the policy.
“That makes me a little antsy,” Takko said.
About 10 years ago, the WDFW determined that triponeme bacteria is associated with the disease. However, Dr. Boone Mora — retired in Skamokawa from a career in public health — disputed the claim and urged WDFW to consider leptospirosis as a cause.
Smith said some disagreement over the studies so far shows there needs to be a program focused on researching the disease among live animals.
“It’s been ... no one cares,” Smith said. “It’s just been really frustrating because that, in my mind, is what needs to happen.”
The Department of Fish and Wildlife so far hasn’t taken a position on the new Senate bill.
But Smith said some form of action is long overdue, adding that hoof disease should be addressed this legislative session.
“You need state legislative action, and I applaud the Senate for stepping up and trying to take action,” he said.