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Hoof disease found in nearby elk herds

Southwest Oregon Roosevelt elk herds are virtually surrounded by new discoveries of a debilitating disease that rots the animals’ hooves, and biologists are fearful the disease could hit here this year.

State wildlife biologists confirmed elk hoof rot disease — known scientifically as treponeme-associated hoof disease, or TAHD — in at least one Roosevelt cow elk shot by a hunter last month in Douglas County.

Then last week California biologists revealed that two elk in a Del Norte County herd tested positive, suggesting the disease may have jumped over Jackson, Josephine and Curry county herds — so far.

“I guess if it’s below us and above us, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a sample taken in by a hunter this fall,” said Steve Niemela, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Rogue District wildlife biologist overseeing Jackson and Josephine counties.

It’s not certain to show up in local Roosevelt elk herds, but it may be here already, said Colin Gillin, ODFW’s state wildlife veterinarian.

That’s just how puzzling this disease similar to hoof rot in cattle has been to scientists, who believe it is caused by bacteria spread through soils. It seems to attack some herds while completely side-stepping others — even though herds naturally can interact.

“It’s not spreading in a way that makes a lot of sense,” Gillin said. “It seems to jump areas. There’s a reason, but it will take a while to figure out. There’s a lot more questions about this than we have answers.”

Elk with the disease can have deformed, overgrown, broken or sloughed hooves. It causes lesions that can be painful and cause limping or lameness.

Other cervids such as deer and moose have not been documented to have the syndrome. While cattle and sheep have similar diseases, there is no documented evidence of the transfer of the bacteria between elk and domesticated animals.

Elk that show these signs do not necessarily have TAHD, as there are other diseases or injuries that can cause similar abnormalities in elk hooves.

While the disease appears to be highly infectious among elk, there is no evidence that it affects humans and does not impact the meat of infected animals.

Suspected diseased animals that appear to be in pain are euthanized, the hooves kept for inspection and the meat donated to local food banks, Gillin said.

Niemela said his agency estimates 3,500 to 4,000 Roosevelt elk live in Jackson and Josephine counties.

The disease was discovered in southwestern Washington state in the 1990s and spread to northwest Oregon, likely from elk that swam the Columbia River, according to ODFW. It later spread among Rocky Mountain elk in northeast Oregon before spreading southward.

While domestic animals can be treated, wild elk cannot be easily captured for treatment, so treatments are not possible, Gillin said.

State wildlife biologists last month confirmed the first case of elk hoof disease in a cow elk near Sutherlin in Douglas County, where unconfirmed reports have been made since as early as 2016, according to ODFW.

Two more elk from that same herd seen limping have been euthanized and are in the midst of testing, the agency said. Others with similar limps have been seen among Roosevelt elk in northern Douglas County near Oakland, but those are not confirmed cases, according to ODFW.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

file photoAn elk herd on Highway 62.