Fall 2022 Elk Hoof Disease Research Update

Elk with unusual antlers laying in the snow behind a small tree.

At WSU, we have the honor and responsibility of leading elk hoof disease research in Washington, but we certainly can’t do it alone. We work collaboratively with wildlife managers and other researchers, and we rely on support from the public.
People often ask me what they can do to help combat elk hoof disease. While we don’t have ways to treat or cure elk with hoof disease in the wild, there are ways to help researchers and managers.
One way that the public has been helping for years is by submitting observations of limping elk and reports of abnormal hooves. Several state wildlife agencies have online reporting systems (for example here is the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife site). Submissions are always welcomed and are particularly important in areas where elk hoof disease has not been previously documented.

Cases as of May 2020.

Hunters also have a role to play in reporting elk with abnormal hooves. Observations that are particularly important to report to state wildlife managers are elk with abnormal hooves harvested in locations where hoof disease is not known to occur or occurs at a low level, like in eastern Washington.

Depending on the situation, managers may ask for the hooves and submit them to WSU or another lab for diagnostic evaluation. For reference, a map of the currently documented distribution of elk hoof disease is available on our website. If you see a gap where you think hoof disease occurs, we particularly need your help!

In Washington, elk hunters also provide critical information when they complete their hunter report and supplemental report to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Submitting these reports is one of the most important ways hunters help. Through collaborations with WDFW, WSU is using this data, which is anonymized (without any submitter information) to help determine how to best focus surveillance efforts, estimate how common disease is in an area, and answer other research questions.

Surprisingly, we recently used data from the WDFW elk hunter reports to investigate the association between hoof disease and asymmetric antlers. Observations by members of the public sparked a research investigation by reporting that elk with hoof disease often had abnormal antlers. While informal observations alone are not sufficient to draw scientific conclusions, in this case we were able to use existing data from hunter reports submitted to WDFW to answer the question.

Elk with unusual antlers, laying in the snow behind a small tree.

As we reported in a media release shared on June 1, 2022, those observers were correct. Overall, elk with hoof disease had twice the odds of having asymmetrical antlers. We published this study in the August 2022 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management.
Finally, hunters that harvest elk with hoof disease remove the risk of that elk transmitting the disease to other elk. This could help reduce the spread of disease. In Washington, hunters can participate in WDFW’s elk hoof disease incentive program to help achieve this goal. Elk hunters should also remember to follow guidelines from state wildlife management agencies regarding proper disposal of carcasses and hooves to avoid moving diseases (both hoof disease and chronic wasting disease) to new locations. Regulations can vary by state, so be sure to know the regulations where you live and wherever you hunt.
With cooler weather and hunting seasons on the way, there is more opportunity for people to observe elk. This is an important time of the year for surveillance for limping elk and elk with abnormal hooves. We hope you’ll do your part by contributing your observations.

Margaret A. Wild, DVM, PhD
Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology