Northwest Elk and Deer Disease Worries

No doubt, if you follow wildlife issues across Washington – even if you are not a big game hunter – you are aware of the current diseases related to ungulates. We hear about the various pneumonia strains killing and affecting our wild sheep, the rapidly growing concern about deformed hooves of our elk, or wapiti, and a long-time concern over chronic wasting disease (DWD) in deer – not yet found in our state, but in deer just a state or province away.

Pros in the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) are focused on solving and managing all three of these disease concerns. For today, I want to consider the elk and deer issues.

DFW has been working with elk hunters on the other side of the Cascades since 2008, but recently sent an urgent request to elk hunters over here in eastern Washington. It looks like this: “Please note… If you harvest an elk in eastern Washington with deformed or abnormal hooves, please retain the hooves and immediately report your observation through WDFW’s online reporting form or by contacting WDFW’s elk specialist (; 360-902-8133). You are not in violation of WAC 220-413-200 by removing hooves from the site of harvest in eastern Washington.”

This hoof disease, known as TAHD (treponeme-associated hoof disease), was first reported in the southwest portion of our state in 2008. It causes limping and lameness from abnormal hoof growth and lesions. In some cases, the outer shell of hooves may just start falling apart. DFW researchers and a group of scientist-advisors, found the abnormalities associated with the treponeme bacteria which cause digital dermatitis – a hoof disease which has affected the livestock industry (cattle, sheep, and goats) for decades. The 2008 discovery of TAHD was the first known occurrence of the disease in any wild ungulate.

Thus far, this hoof disease has been documented in elk in all our southwest counties, as well as Clallam, Jefferson, King, Whatcom, and Skagit Counties. In February of this year, DFW confirmed TAHD in Walla Walla County, the easternmost confirmation to date. This is a devastating problem for affected wapiti and it is on the move in our state. Thus, the request made of eastern elk hunters. You can learn more, and get more details, at

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is another story. It has yet to be found in Washington – or in any of our bordering states. It continues to spread, however, and is currently found in 24 states and two provinces. CWD is contagious and fatal in deer (white-tail, mule, and black-tail deer), elk, moose, and caribou. It is caused by mutated proteins known as prions, which can remain in the environment for years and be transmitted between members of the deer family through their feces, saliva, urine, and other bodily fluids.

It is a neurological disease, causing a spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death. It is among a group/family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). Variants within this family include some which affect domestic sheep and goats (scrapie) and cattle (BSE, or “mad cow disease”). While rumors of a cure circulate from time to time, there is no cure on the horizon and the only control is, to the extent possible, isolating the infected animals.

CWD was first found in 1967 in a research mule deer herd in Colorado, and confirmed as a TSE in the 1970s. Within a few years it was found in elk of Colorado and in deer of Wyoming. Today, as noted above CWD is in members of the deer family in half the states of the Lower 48.

Washington has taken many steps over the years to prevent CWD from entering the state – and our wild ungulate populations. These steps have ranged from outlawing ungulate game farms and testing thousands of deer to creating a pretty strict set of rules for bringing game meat into our state from any CWD state where it was harvested. You will find those rules and more at DFW encourages hunters to have deer tested for CWD in states where they are killed – that state will notify DFW and the hunter of a positive test for CWD and the meat from that animal will be confiscated and destroyed. (This has happened a handful of times over recent years.) While there currently is no scientific evidence of CWD being transmitted from animals to humans, agencies and the feds strongly recommend against eating meat from an animal that has tested positive.

Because there remain many mysteries about just how CWD spreads, and because it is still steadily spreading, this is a growing concern across the Northwest and the country. What, for example, is the role of wolves in the spreading of this disease? A number of studies across the country (Google “CWD and wolves”) maintain that wolves actually limit its spread. Yet, given the wide ranges of wolves, their ingestion of the parts of prey which carry the prions, and the fact that those prions would be dropped in wolf scat/feces wherever they travel, several biologists in Colorado and elsewhere are asking that dead wolves and wolf scat be tested for prions. DFW will be releasing new rules and policy for managing CWD in a couple months.

Learn more by reviewing the DFW website noted above, or the North American site at (and links there).

This conversation about current, and coming, diseases in our wild ungulates will continue as more is learned and new rules are promulgated. Stand by…

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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