I wish my family was getting ready to go elk hunting. I wish we were shopping for supplies, setting up our camp along the Coweeman River, and maybe even doing some scouting on the weekends.
Instead, my dad, my uncle, my brother and the rest of our hunting party are boycotting our Department of Fish and Wildlife and Weyerhaeuser for the fourth consecutive year.
It all began when a pitifully unsuccessful black powder rifle season prompted my family to start attending meetings and asking tough questions about why there were so few healthy elk. What we learned about elk hoof disease was sad, but what we’ve learned about the collusion between certain government agencies and the timber and chemical industries has been truly disturbing.
After my family’s unsuccessful hunting season this past fall I became curious about why there were so few elk in the woods of southwest Washington. The answer of course was the epidemic of hoof disease that is currently ravaging elk populations throughout the Pacific Northwest, and since then I have attended numerous meetings on the subject, written several articles, and probably parsed through more scientific papers than there are healthy elk left in Cowlitz County, where I was born.
Along the way I have learned a great deal about the dangers that herbicides and their adjuvants present to nearly every living organism, and like many hundreds of local citizens, I have come to believe that the forest chemicals routinely sprayed on industrial timber lands are at the root of “hoof rot.” The insights into true herbicide toxicity have been disturbing, but what has been especially maddening is that our Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) appears to be casting these concerns aside and discounting herbicides as a potential cause.
“Shall we see our children stripped of everything provided by a wise Providence for the sustenance of untold generations? The earth does not belong entirely to the present. Posterity has its claims.”
— Frank Lamb, Grays Harbor forester, 1909
Hardly a day goes by anymore without the release of a disturbing new article or study exposing the terribly destructive impact toxic herbicides are wreaking on our world. Just in the last few months, popular articles have linked common herbicides to autism, anencephaly birth defects, and an exceptionally deadly outbreak of kidney disease in Central America. In that same time, a study published in the journal Biomedical Research International revealed that Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide is 125 times more toxic than regulators say; a feature in The New Yorker described how large chemical manufacturers like Syngenta systematically harass scientists for producing research that threatens their profits; and the Seattle Times ran an editorial entitled “The Failure of the EPA to protect the public from pollution” which documents the chemical industry’s cozy ties to government regulators.
In this context, the battle to defend our wildlife populations in the Pacific Northwest from the known dangers of forest chemicals is but one front in a global war on this most pervasive and insidious toxicity. Our elk herds, suffering as they are from multiple maladies including an epidemic of hoof disease, are simply the largest and most obvious victims of a prolonged siege that is being waged on industrial timber lands throughout the states of Washington and Oregon. Thankfully, just as Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) officials began informing the public of their intention to euthanize crippled elk before actually understanding the cause of their disease, the collective rallying cry to save these animals, or at least properly study them, has become very loud indeed.
“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.”
For months, WDFW officials have been claiming the mysterious elk hoof disease ravaging the herds of southwest Washington is likely caused by treponema bacteria. At a public meeting in Longview on March 27, WDFW Director Phil Anderson told the nearly 300 citizens in attendance that regarding treponema, “We’ve got some pretty strong evidence and we’ll figure out whether we’re 99% sure or 90% sure here pretty soon.”
Now that percentage of certainty hovers somewhere between slim and none.
On June 3rd, numerous members of WDFW’s highly vaunted technical advisory group expressed serious doubts that treponema could be the root cause of elk hoof disease. Though the bacteria do appear to be involved, the unmistakable consensus was that treponemes are secondary or tertiary to other, more systemic factors.
“[Treponemes] are possibly playing a role, but they’re not the entirety,” said Jennifer Wilson, a research microbiologist with the USDA.
“I buy the fact that it’s acting like a novel introduced disease. I’m just saying this treponema data does not support that,” said Tom Besser, a specialist in Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology at WSU.
“I also have a little bit of a concern because the treponema hypothesis still requires an initiating event… Until you figure out what that triggering event was you’re not going to be able to really understand the disease,” said Dr. Anne Fairbrother, an Ecotoxicologist with Exponent Engineering and Scientific Consulting.
“You’re mentioning lots of different bacteria. That’s one piece of the puzzle… but there are other things that seem to be missing in the puzzle. Big pieces. The big pieces are the environmental factors and why this particular region and not other regions,” said Dale Moore, an expert in preventive veterinary medicine at WSU.
Now, more than 20 years since the onset of elk hoof disease, and nearly 5 years since they began “actively” investigating this condition, WDFW is left without a single viable working hypothesis. Despite all of this, WDFW officials still insist they are giving it their best effort.
Asked to weigh in on the matter, wildlife activist Bruce Barnes said, “They’re playing the public for a bunch of fools.”
I discovered him quite serendipitously one recent Sunday. Killing time in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, I wandered into a bar known as Conor Byrne that gives local musicians the opportunity to play a three-song set during their weekly open mic. Midway through the evening, a tall, shaggy-browed musician was introduced and Payson walked up and took a seat at the edge of the stage. The audience was restless and talkative, but as he began to croon his images of sweet melancholy, a hush came over the room, the spectators spellbound into silence. He had won them over completely.