Washington state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife is enlisting the help of hunters in an effort to better understand the extent of elk hoof disease within the state.

A pilot program is offering Western Washington hunters who harvest animals that may be infected with the disease a chance to get a special hunting permit.

Hunters are being asked to examine hooves from harvested elks for lesions between the hoof claws, for overgrown or cracked hoof claws, and for sloughed hoof claws — all common signs of the disease.

Hunters may want to target elk showing symptoms of hoof disease to take advantage of the pilot program.

“It’s easy to see the outward indication of the animal having the disease,” Fish and Wildlife ungulate specialist Kyle Garrison said. “It’s limping, holding a hoof up. Now those animals can be targeted and removed.”

Hunters can participate in the program by taking the hooves to the nearest drop-off location. (A map of collection sites is available on the department’s website.)

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Fish and Wildlife staff will clean and evaluate hoof submissions for signs of hoof disease, and enter eligible hunters into a drawing for a premium elk tag for the following license year. There will be a drawing next spring for a limited number of special permit opportunities.

“It’s a very unique opportunity to have a high quality hunt,” Garrison said.

While the details surrounding the permits are being worked out, the permits will offer a rare opportunity to hunt mature bull elk over large areas of Western Washington and outside of general seasons using the weapon of choice.

Garrison said Fish and Wildlife offers no other permit of this kind.

“The idea is, if you have the opportunity to harvest an elk showing the telltale signs of the disease, you do so,” Garrison said. “You drop those hooves off, we have staff collect them and evaluate them. We aren’t going to be sending them off to be tested.”

Garrison said treponeme-associated hoof disease first appeared in southwest Washington in 2008 and that area continues to have the highest incident rates.

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It has since been reported in 17 counties in the state and has been found in Oregon, Idaho and northern California.

“It’s present in areas such as the Olympic Peninsula, the north Puget Sound and the North Cascades elk populations,” Garrison said. “It’s present, but not present at as high as prevalence rates seen to the south.”

He added infected elk in the North Cascades elk population have been minimal so far.

“In it’s early stages, it creates lesions,” Garrison said. “Then it progresses and gets worse from there.”

Garrison said it’s believed to be passed from elk to elk by walking. An infected animal deposits bacteria into the soil and other elk are infected by walking through that soil.

“Following that model of transmission, if you were able to remove the animal with the infection from the landscape, then you could begin to interrupt and lessen that transmission,” he said. “It’s an untested hypothesis, but one that has been put forth.”