Larry Gitch spent three weekends this summer in the Boistfort area in Lewis County, Wash., scouting elk.
"I would say in 60 percent or better of the animals, I would see hoof rot," said Gitch, a Vancouver resident who had a master hunter elk permit for an area near Vader.
"Some of them did not want to put their feet on the ground," Gitch said. "Some of them would actually drag their feet. ... It's a pretty sad deal. It was just hard to watch at times."
Biologists, hunters and wildlife watchers are seeing more southwest Washington elk with misshapen, sometimes crossing hooves.
"In the past three years it's become really acute," said Pat Miller, a wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The condition seems most common in the lowlands east and west of Interstate 5, Miller said.
In August, one of Cliff Wheeler's motion-activated cameras photographed a cow elk with hoof rot in the woods near Wheeler's Tower Road home, east of Castle Rock.
Mark Smith, who lives at Eco Park resort near the Toutle River 20 miles east of the freeway, said he's seen hoof rot in that area. "I've seen it all the way from the (Weyerhaeuser) Forest Learning Center all the way down the valley," Smith said.
Gitch said a friend who recently spent a week hunting with a Mount Whittier tag north of Spirit Lake didn't see any hoof rot in the elk there.
The WDFW has sent surveys to hunters to learn more about how far hoof rot has spread.
Hoof rot hasn't been observed in elk elsewhere in the United States, said Kristin Mansfield, a WDFW veterinarian based in Spokane.
However, a similar condition has been seen in moose from southeast Alaska, Mansfield said.
More than 40 types of hoof rot afflict wild and domestic animals. Hoof rot that elk get is similar to a type seen in domestic sheep, Mansfield said, though the progression of the condition is reversed.
Sheep hoof rot starts with a bacterial infection.
With the elk, hooves don't wear normally, which allows bacteria to get into them. "It almost seems as if they grow too long first," Mansfield said.
Increased levels of hoof rot haven't been reported in local cattle and sheep, and it isn't a health hazard to humans, Mansfield said.
Because it's painful for them to walk, elk with hoof rot have trouble foraging and are sometimes emaciated.
Gitch said some of the Boistfort elk he saw "were so sick you could see their haunches."
Possible causes of elk hoof rot include nutritional deficiencies, dietary changes and either decreased activity or more walking on soft soils, Mansfield wrote in a paper on the subject.
Elk with hoof rot may not look healthy, but the meat from unaffected parts of their bodies is safe to eat.
Hunters' "eyes and their nose are their best guide to whether that part of the elk is appropriate to eat," Miller said. "If it doesn't smell right, throw it out. There are some herds that have a lot of limping elk."
Gitch shot an elk with hoof rot and asked his meat cutter for advice. The butcher told him the meat above the hoof rot joints was OK.
"I've eaten it and it's no problem at all," Gitch said.