WSU leading the efforts against elk hoof disease

Elk hoof being evaluated by researchers.

Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine has been leading the effort to identify the cause of elk hoof disease and to provide critical information to wildlife agencies to better manage the disease in the wild since the Washington state Legislature passed SB 5474 in 2017.  

The legislation provided funding to address elk hoof disease and designated the college as the state lead agency in developing a program to monitor and assess causes of and potential solutions for elk hoof disease.

After a nationwide recruitment effort, Dr. Margaret Wild was selected in 2018 to lead the elk hoof research team at WSU. Dr. Wild has more than 25 years of experience working with state and federal wildlife management agencies and has spent her career investigating diseases in elk.

The team has been working to:

  • Study disease causes and contributing factors in captive elk – Using captive elk in a controlled environment, the team has worked to learn about the causes of the disease and contributing factors, such as nutritional condition and exposure to herbicides, that may make elk susceptible. This information could directly inform management and mitigation, help to better understand the risk (to elk and other species), and serve as input needed for computer models of disease impacts. A new WSU elk research facility was completed and studies on captive elk began in 2020.
  • Study disease agents in the lab – Using modern laboratory technology called metagenomics, researchers are looking at the genetic material contained in samples from diseased hooves to identify which bacteria are associated with hoof disease. This work will guide the improvement of methods to isolate the responsible bacteria, develop tests to better detect and potentially treat or prevent them.
  • Conduct regional surveillance – Hoof samples from across Washington and other states in the Northwest are being collected to determine where the disease occurs and whether the pathogens and other contributing factors involved are the same in every area. This will provide baseline data to measure changes over time. It will also help determine whether the disease is one outbreak that is spreading or multiple independent outbreaks.
  • Understand the social aspects of the disease – The research team is working with the WSU Social and Economic Sciences Research Center to conduct a social science inquiry to understand stakeholders’ beliefs, values, and concerns about the disease and elk management. This information will guide outreach and education efforts, assist wildlife agencies and elected officials, and contribute to goal setting for research and management.
  • Collaboration – The research team is collaborating with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife research and management officials. The WDFW, the state agency responsible for the management of wildlife resources, is coordinating the submission of hooves to the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (WADDL) at WSU for diagnostic evaluation by specially trained veterinary pathologists and for research use.
  • Outreach and education – Raising public awareness and informing the public, professional groups, and policymakers about the disease and its potential impacts is an important part of the team’s work. The team is committed to listening to concerns and input on studies and to sharing research findings. Read the latest Elk Hoof news.

As researchers begin to better understand the disease, WSU’s elk hoof disease research team plans to investigate:

  • Disease spread – Computer models will be used to study disease spread and identify factors contributing to disease occurrence. The models can help to compare expected and observed disease spread to determine whether or not management actions altered the spread. 
  • Immune response – After conducting the basic work on the causes of hoof disease, immune response in captive elk will be studied. Those findings will help researchers to understand if some elk are more susceptible than others due to poor immune systems and their ability to fight the disease. It may also help identify potential preventive or treatment methods.
  • Prevention and treatment – There is currently no treatment for elk hoof disease. After researchers learn more about the causes of the disease, prevention or treatment options for individual animals as is reasonable and appropriate for wildlife will be pursued. Similar infections in cattle are treated with intensive management using foot baths and application of antibiotics, but these types of treatments are not feasible for wild free-ranging elk, so innovative approaches will need to be explored.