Hoof disease plaguing Whatcom, Skagit elk remains a mystery

A bull elk at Hurn’s Pasture off Highway 20 in Skagit County in this 2005 photo.
A bull elk at Hurn’s Pasture off Highway 20 in Skagit County in this 2005 photo. The Bellingham Herald file

Research into a hoof disease that causes lameness in wild elk and affected livestock will get a boost this month when the new state budget goes into effect.

The budget includes about $1.5 million for research into the the cause and prevention of the disease, a bacteria known to cause hoof deformities in elk in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

Its spread into northwest Washington remains a mystery, as the disease was first found in southwest parts of the state years earlier. In late 2015, an elk with the disease was found on Highway 20 in Skagit County. In 2016, two elk in Whatcom County also were found to have the disease.

The state Department of Fish & Wildlife and Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine will monitor elk herds to identify causes for the spread of the disease and come up with solutions to prevent it.

Livestock farmers fear the disease may affect their herds as well, said Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee.

Fish & Wildlife continues to seek public reports of hoof deformities in elk killed in collisions, killed by hunters or observed limping. Such reports have helped Fish & Wildlife confirm the disease in Skagit, Whatcom, Thurston and Mason counties in recent years.

Those are a handful of the 1,100 reports Fish & Wildlife has received statewide since it started taking online reports in 2012.

“I really feel for people who are seeing this out there in the wild,” said Charlie Powell, spokesman for WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.