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July 20 Daily News editorial

A few years ago, when the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had a public meeting about elk, hunters were usually the only people to pay much attention. Rifle hunters and archers would argue over the allocation of permits and regulations about what types of elk could be taken where.

In the past year, however, the agency has moved into the crosshairs of a lot more people -- and influential ones, too -- because of elk hoof disease.

Cowlitz County commissioners sponsored one of the town meetings where citizens vented their frustrations at seeing all the limping elk.

Wahkiakum County commissioners have told WDFW that they want a Wahkiakum County resident, Dr. Boone Mora, to get a chance to study the cause of hoof rot.

This week, the Clark County Commissioners objected to the state’s plan to cull the herd of limping animals. They also asked WDFW to consider whether the use of herbicides on forest land is contributing to the spread of elk hoof rot.

The herbicide theory is bringing in a whole different set of voices into wildlife management -- and so will culling.

Environmentalists -- a group that in the past didn’t pay much attention to hunting regulations -- are voicing their objections to the use of herbicides, which already are blamed for human and wildlife health problems.

People concerned about herbicide use have valid reasons to weigh in. A Daily News story this week pointed out that, while experts say there’s no evidence that herbicides harm elk, little research has been done on that specific subject. And much of the research has been funded by timber companies, which obviously have a stake in the outcome. “There is so much that we do not know, yet we are acting in a manner that suggests we do,” said Bob Ferris, a wildlife biologist and executive director of Cascadia Wildlands.

The questions about herbicides can be addressed by more research, preferably by scientists who don’t appear to have conflicts of interest. But WDFW can’t wait that long before taking its next step to quell hoof hot. The agency announced last month that it would indeed begin culling, though no time frames were supplied.

Shooting diseased and lamed elk is not likely to be popular. Non-hunters, who make up the vast majority of the state’s population, will wonder if it’s the best solution. Hunters have already objected that WDFW plans to use its own employees to do the shooting, rather than them. Already, some people involved in the hoof rot debate are questioning WDFW’s assertion that the meat from affected elk is safe to eat -- but the department plans to give the meat from culled animals to food banks.

Hoof rot is the most contentious wildlife issue facing WDFW in years, at least in Southwest Washington; in the past, most of the agency’s flak was over fish.

The agency has responded by creating a working group of scientists and a new biologist position to deal with hoof rot. It’s a good start but the agency may need to shift more resources as it continues to pinpoint the cause of hoof rot and develop a plan to keep it from spreading. Elected officials and the general public will keep scoping the issue as long as reports of deformed hooves keep arriving.

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The Daily News, Longview, Wash.

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