After my family’s unsuccessful hunting season this past fall I became curious about why there were so few elk in the woods of southwest Washington. The answer of course was the epidemic of hoof disease that is currently ravaging elk populations throughout the Pacific Northwest, and since then I have attended numerous meetings on the subject, written several articles, and probably parsed through more scientific papers than there are healthy elk left in Cowlitz County, where I was born.
Along the way I have learned a great deal about the dangers that herbicides and their adjuvants present to nearly every living organism, and like many hundreds of local citizens, I have come to believe that the forest chemicals routinely sprayed on industrial timber lands are at the root of “hoof rot.” The insights into true herbicide toxicity have been disturbing, but what has been especially maddening is that our Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) appears to be casting these concerns aside and discounting herbicides as a potential cause.
The rallying point for many came recently when WDFW announced their plans to euthanize limping elk. As it is still unknown what causes this disease, critics have pointed out that killing affected elk is essentially squandering opportunities for live studies, something WDFW has been extremely and inexplicably reluctant to do. Multiple members of WDFW’s own Public Working Group have endorsed these live studies and one of them, Mark Smith, a candidate for Cowlitz County Commissioner, has even offered to enclose elk at his Eco Park Resort east of Toutle. Now it appears that WDFW would rather euthanize elk than move a few of them to Smith’s property and see if mineral blocks, a hoof trimming and an herbicide-free environment alone might improve their condition.
What’s more, WDFW officials continue to make false and misleading statements about the nature of elk hoof disease despite ample opportunities to correct them. One of these is their assertion that the disease is limited to the hooves. As numerous citizens and Public Working Group members have pointed out at multiple meetings in which WDFW officials have been in attendance, antler deformities are commonplace and disproportionately affecting elk with hoof disease.
It is particularly unfortunate that WDFW has elected to overlook these antler deformities because they may prove to be one of the keys to understanding this disease. Hooves and antlers are composed of the same protein, keratin, and the copper deficiencies which have been well-documented in our elk are known to be a cause of all sorts of keratin irregularities including beak deformities and abnormal coats. All of this is present in WDFW’s studies, but they fall short of an explanation for these copper deficiencies.
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Another major false claim WDFW continues to make is that “Timber companies use similar herbicide treatments along the West Coast, yet elk populations in other areas have not exhibited the symptoms associated with hoof disease seen in southwest Washington.” It is hard to fathom how this passage is still prominently displayed on their website when an easily accessible newspaper article from February 2013 documents that elk 100 miles north in the Snoqualmie Valley are suffering from the very same disease. Local wildlife biologist Harold Erland even notified WDFW’s lead investigator of the situation. Furthermore, “hoof rot” has now been reported in at least six counties in Oregon, some closer to California than Washington.
Interestingly, all of these reports have come from areas rife with clearcuts where herbicide sprays are common. On the other hand, reports of limping elk have been conspicuously absent from Mount Rainier and Olympic National parks – a strong indicator that where natural conditions are intact and forest chemicals absent, elk maintain normal ambulation.
In my first article on elk hoof disease I depicted WDFW officials as still scratching their heads after five years of “active” investigation. Certain WDFW officials -- public servants and paid protectors of our wildlife resources -- have ignored vital facts and misled taxpaying citizens. And on their watch our elk continue to die agonizing deaths no virtuous hunter would ever allow. It’s time WDFW accepts Mark Smith’s offer, moves some sick elk to an herbicide-free environment, and honestly researches once and for all whether forest chemicals are playing a role in this horrendous disease.
Jon Gosch lives in Seattle.