State recruits volunteers for spring hoof rot survey

Volunteers again are needed to help with a survey to determine the proportion of elk in southwest Washington with hoof disease.

Scheduled for March and April, the survey is part of a broad-based effort by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to understand and manage the crippling disease that has spread through the region’s elk population in recent years.

To assess the prevalence of the disease in area herds, the agency will ask teams of volunteers to drive 50 miles around selected survey points throughout 10 counties. The survey area includes Cowlitz, Wahkiakum, Skamania, Clark, Grays Harbor, Thurston, Pierce, Pacific, Lewis and Mason counties.

The goal is to record both the total number of elk they see and the ones showing signs of hoof disease.

Before the survey begins, survey teams of a driver and a primary observer will be equipped with GPS equipment, trained in survey techniques, and instructed on how to recognize the limping gait that characterizes elk affected by the disease.

All volunteers are required to take an evening training session during the first week of March. Training sessions will be offered in Montesano, Chehalis, Longview, Vancouver and Cathlamet.

Sandra Jonker, wildlife manager for southwest Washington, said the purpose of the survey is to assess the ratio of diseased elk to healthy elk throughout the region.

“The department has been documenting the geographical spread of hoof disease for some time, but we also need to understand its prevalence from one area to another,” Jonker said in a news release. “We need to know where elk are most affected and least affected to inform management of this disease.”

Jonker said 75 people have already expressed interest in participating in the study, but many more are needed. The department is looking for as many as 300 more participants, she said.

“This is a major undertaking, covering thousands of miles, so we need all the help we can get,” she said in the release.

Jonker said to participate in the survey, teams will need to have binoculars and a reliable vehicle. Experience in using GPS and access to the internet are preferred, but not required, she said.

The department will reimburse volunteers for mileage during the survey and some commuting distance.

Based on all evidence to date, hoof disease is believed to be caused by infectious treponeme bacteria and most closely resembles contagious ovine digital dermatitis in sheep. There is no evidence that the bacteria are harmful to humans, but the disease can be crippling to elk. There are no proven options for treating the disease in the field nor is a vaccine available at this time.

In a separate study, state wildlife managers plan to begin capturing and fitting elk with radio-collars this month to determine how the disease is affecting elk survival and reproduction.

A similar survey was conducted last summer.