Jon Gosch

Novelist, Journalist and Freelance Editor

Growing Evidence Links Herbicides to Elk Hoof Disease

After Five Years of Active Investigation, WDFW Officials Still Scratching Their Heads

My family has hunted the forests of southwest Washington for more than sixty years and never before have they observed such a scarcity of wildlife. Twenty years ago my dad and uncle remember seeing two or three big elk herds a day. Now we’re lucky to see two or three individuals a day. Depressingly, this past fall marked the first time in three decades that our entire hunting party failed to harvest a single elk from the Coweeman unit. I later learned that the Coweeman elk population has dropped by seventy percent in recent years.

Something is afoot in our local forests, and I’m convinced that the epidemic of hoof disease currently ravaging the elk population surrounding Mount St. Helens is only the alarm. Everyone in my hunting party now believes that the herbicides Weyerhaeuser and other private timber companies are spraying on new growth habitats is one of the chief causes of our wildlife shortage which includes deer, grouse and just about every other animal out there. After several years of diminishing returns, I (like many others) have been on a path of inquiry to understand just what is happening in our forests, and so far the insights have been disturbing.

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Elk Hoof Disease | Photo by Jon Gosch

In any conversation about herbicides, or pesticides in general, it is important to remember that a pesticide is a chemical or biological agent formulated to deter, incapacitate and often kill an organism. This most basic function of pesticides is often downplayed by those who regularly apply them, as well as camouflaged by dense lawyer-speak intended to disguise the reality. Take for example the following passage: “Pesticides used in forest management include a wide variety of chemicals introduced to the forest environment with the intent of controlling or halting the proliferation of nuisance organisms.” Make no mistake. Halting the proliferation of nuisance organisms pretty much means what you think it does – kill weeds, bushes, bugs and other small and obnoxious critters.

The passage cited above comes from an obscure but revealing document on the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website entitled Appendix J: Forest Chemicals. It was published in April of 2011 and bears no author’s name. If you take the time to read this official government document, as probably very few people ever have, you will learn that “The application of pesticides to forested lands does pose a risk of impacts on fish and wildlife,” and that “The use of forest chemicals presents a variety of environmental threats, including those to human health, marine and freshwater organisms, and terrestrial ecosystems.”

None of this will come as any surprise to hunters and activists in southwest Washington who have been making precisely those claims for well over a decade. Last month, up to 300 outraged citizens gathered in Longview to share their concerns with three state representatives and several Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) officials that pesticides are one of the underlying factors causing elk hoof disease. A common refrain by hunters was that elk hoof disease and other major changes in the environment coincided with the onset of pesticide spraying in the early 90s. At one point during the meeting, activist Bruce Barnes asked the audience to raise their hands if they believed herbicides had a role in elk hoof disease. Eighty percent of the hands immediately went up.

Shockingly, WDFW officials admitted during the meeting that although they have been investigating elk hoof disease for five years, and without identifying its cause, they have not considered pesticides/herbicides as a potential factor. According to the WDFW website, they are relying upon the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI) to help inform their understanding of this issue. In what is an obvious conflict of interest, NCASI membership is composed of forest products companies and owners/managers of industrial woodlands.

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Even more outrageously, WDFW officials continue to insist there’s no connection between herbicides and the health of our elk, even though a recently published study conducted by researchers from the University of Alberta has demonstrated exactly that. According to the researchers, herbicides can dramatically alter the quantity and quality of forage available to elk, reducing their favorite woody plant species by up to 50-70%. Elk thrive where they have access to low-lying, non-toxic forage from new growth habitats high in biodiversity. A lack of these conditions led the researchers to conclude that “the elk herd at Mount St. Helens is currently in poor nutritional condition compared to other herds in Washington.”

Along with resulting in poor elk nutrition, herbicides are also known to reduce immune system strength, enabling bacteria to take advantage of severely weakened animals. One of the most common chemicals used by timber companies is an herbicide known as atrazine which was banned by the European Union in 2004 because of persistent groundwater contamination. According to the National Toxicology Program, atrazine is “immunotoxic,” disrupting the function of the immune system by as much as 70%.

These herbicides aren’t just bad for animals. They are also bad for humans. In 2010, in the small community of Triangle Lake, Oregon, 41 out of 41 residents tested positive for atrazine contamination along with another prevalent toxic chemical called 2,4-D. Not coincidentally, residents of Triangle Lake live adjacent to Weyerhaeuser property that had been sprayed heavily with pesticides following a clear cut. Like many communities around the Pacific Northwest, the people of Triangle Lake are now pressing for a moratorium on pesticide sprays.

We too need a moratorium on pesticide and herbicide sprays in southwest Washington. We also need funds for a series of truly independent research studies. WDFW has demonstrated their unwillingness to question their cronies in the timber and chemical industries so it’s time to get people with some real integrity to do their job for them.

It is apparent to my family, and just about every other hunter and conservationist I’ve spoken with, that pesticides and herbicides are bad for our elk, bad for our people, and bad for our ecosystem. Government officials had better start showing leadership on these issues, and quickly.

We are all watching. We aren’t going away.


My ongoing investigation of elk hoof disease and toxic forest practices is funded entirely by my readers. If you appreciate my work and believe that journalism should be fearlessly independent of corporate influence, then consider clicking on the donate button below so that I can continue giving these issues the time and attention they deserve. Thank you for your support.





To learn more about the proven dangers of forest chemicals, WDFW’s controversial ties to industry insiders, and experts’ doubts about the validity of WDFW’s treponema theory, then continue reading: WDFW’s Treponema Theory Dismantled by Technical Advisory Group

And for a look into how local lawmakers and journalists are pushing back against the official story, as well as how antler deformities, lungworms and copper deficiencies may factor into this investigation, carry on with: Save Our Elk (from toxic herbicides)

33 Comments

Karen Kingston

April 22nd, 2014

Several years ago I did an investigation on Weyerhaeuser and Longview Fiber. They were clear cutting forest land that was registered with the WA State Forest Practices Act and then immediately selling the property for subdivisions without replanting or paying the WSFPA fine, via in-house realty companies as “improved property”. I was able to get a one year moratorium in Clark County on Cluster Subdivision Building. Negating the point that I suffered with threats of bodily harm to either myself or my family if I continued with my investigations, placing this strategic moratorium was the only way I could stall a 260 acre property that was sold under the conditions I mentioned; while I went to Olympia on the subject. Undaunted, I worked on this issue and Weyerhaeuser placed several full page ads in the local newspapers verifying their “close and respected relationships” with local communities and residents. I saw this as evidence that indeed I was on the right track. The spraying discussed here, raises the hair on my neck and still makes me fall into deeper thoughts about why they are spraying chemicals akin to agent orange to defoliate. Is Weyerhaeuser again multi-tasking?
KR Kingston, Vancouver, WA

ben

April 23rd, 2014

Has anybody bothered to look up the msdson this stuff. Google it

ben

April 23rd, 2014

** MSDS

t6

April 23rd, 2014

Nasty stuff for sure. Good article Jon Gosch.

Keep up the good work.

T

cfordtuff

April 23rd, 2014

So why hasn’t this problem showed up outside of the 3 counties affected? I believe there is a strong correlation, but if this is the issue, then why hasn’t it shown up in Oregon, or the Olympic Peninsula, or in Skagit and Whatcom counties where there is just as much active logging and the use of herbicides? The WDFW released a statement not long ago stating that “Preliminary evidence suggests the involvement of an infectious bacterium”. It seems to me that any bacteria that may be causing this would 1) Die with the application of said herbicides, or 2) Be allowed to flourish in the animals from a suppressed immune system. Like the article says, until we independently study this, we may never know. The easiest way to do this is to stop the herbicides and eliminate the elk with hoof rot. No one wants to shoot a rotten elk anyway!

Jon Gosch

April 23rd, 2014

Thank you for your comment, cfordtuff.

It is impossible to say at this moment why we are seeing elk hoof disease in SW Washington and not in Oregon or the Skagit. Why does any disease start exactly when and where it does? Oftentimes it’s impossible to know. That same logic you’re employing is currently being used by everybody to try and disprove everybody else’s theory. Why here and not there?

Southwest Washington does have more industrial timber land than just about anywhere else in the state though. My high school mascot was the lumberjack.

Whatever the cause or causes, elk hoof disease does appear to be infectious and it is spreading geographically. Left unchecked we will soon see limping elk with overgrown hooves in the Olympics and Mt. Rainier. Maybe it has to get into the National Parks before we’ll see any real traction on this issue.

Regarding the bacteria, WDFW has been stating they think something called treponema is the culprit, but that too has been controversial, and there are a lot of big holes in that theory. A local Doctor of Public Health named Boone Mora, someone with a CDC background, has been claiming for more than a year that a bacterial infection called leptospirosis is causing these overgrown hooves. So far WDFW has expended a lot of effort to discredit Mora, yet they recently invited him to meet with their technical advisory group. Maybe they’re coming around?

I’m currently working on another article about Dr. Mora and his leptospirosis theory. I think it’s very possible that a combination of herbicides and lepto are causing elk hoof disease, but we can’t know anything for sure until we get some independent researchers on this case. I agree with you on that, cfordtuff.

Stay tuned, all.

Tom

April 24th, 2014

Could you have picked a more stereotypical “hippy” than those interviewed in this video?? Come on…like she agreed with timber harvest, herbicide or not. She moved to timber land area then complains about it. She mine as well move next to an airport an then complain about the noise. Give me a break!!!

Stephen Hamilton

April 24th, 2014

A person who owns a house and a 1 acre farm in the country who is worried about her children’s exposure to herbicides and just so happens to have dreadlocks is not a stereotypical hippy. It seems to me that she agrees with timber harvesting, considering she lives in a wooden house, but probably not with clear cutting. I feel the same way. Clear cutting degrades the soil, contributes to mud and rock slides, and typically are sprayed with herbicides. I don’t like that. I should be able to move into a house and be reasonably safe from exposure to toxins. For example, my apartment manager just recently tried to spray a pesticide on the whole complex for any control. What’s worse: a couple ants or health problems caused by understudied chemicals? Luckily I was able to refuse the spraying. Does the desire to not be exposed to toxins make a hippy? According to you, yes. So naturally everything I say should be discredited.

Holly

April 24th, 2014

I believe that herbicides and pesticides are the culprit as well. My property in Winlock is surrounded by forested area and 17 years ago I had elk passing through my with hardly a problem. There was always a large herd that wintered over behind our place and traveled to a hay field down the road. In the past 8 years their numbers have dwindled. I watched a herd of elk cross the road where I work in Castle Rock and EVERY SINGLE ONE of the 20 or so head could hardly walk. It was gruesome, torturous, and horrifying to watch. It’s not just wild animals either, I’ve know several people who live on borderlands and many have horses that end up dying from cancer. I personally had one horse die from cancer and another from hepatitis.
Furthermore, I worked for Weyerhaeuser and was always astounded how they would print reports stating that the had experienced a loss, etc; yet the in-house employee new letters always claimed the exact opposite. They have more than enough funds to ethically and morally operate.

Jim Boylan Jr

May 2nd, 2014

I have hunted the St Helens area for years. I agree 100% that the elk herd is in trouble. We drew cow and bull tags the last three years in the Toutle and Margaret units. We saw ONE elk in the Margaret. A bull that we harvested. It had hoof disease. We are eating it still but may hold off a while now.

I hunted with a buddy in January this year in the Toutle unit. We saw elk. Not as many as I did in 2011. But every elk we saw in groups, some were limping. Several were very sick.

We found a pile of fresh dropping from an elk that is the strangest pile of crap I have ever seen. It looks like there were red worms all through the piles. I have a picture if you want to check it out and/or forward it to the Dr you interviewed.

I sent it to a biologist I know who works for the state. He couldn’t figure out what it was either. It is clearly tissue but no idea why. He also answered my question about how far the hoof disease has spread.

It has reached NORTH BEND. That is NOT SW Washington.

The part the bugs me most is WDFW has said we don’t know what is the cause BUT we know it is NOT herbicide or pesticide. How the hell can they say that? If you don’t know what it is, you surely can not say what isn’t causing it. Feel free to contact me. Great articles.

Jon Gosch

May 2nd, 2014

Thank you, Jim. I’ll be contacting you shortly.

Joe

May 4th, 2014

I have hunted Southwest Washington for 40 years. On two occasions I have been present during the harvest of diseased Elk. On both occasions WDFW was contacted and we were instructed the animal was safe to eat.
When the first animal was processed, the left hind quarter had to be discarded. Between the muscle layers there was a long black discoloration consisting of a solid fiber like pocket. At the time I was thinking gangrene due to the discoloration. This was the side with the deformed hoof. On the second elk the same pocket of fiber like material was present in the hindquarter of the infected hoof, this was only about the size of a quarter and was able to be cut out. I have talked with others who have been issued new tags as the animal was too bad for consumption.
So far as deer populations in the state of Washington. As I hunt deer, I have witnessed the decrease in deer populations on timber properties throughout the late nineties, early 2000. I discussed the observation with a Port Blakely forester. He agreed the populations had gone down, but blamed poaching for decline. We now have gates everywhere and who knows what the actual populations truly are, who can we trust with public trusts.

Eron King

August 4th, 2014

I no longer have dreadlocks! I know how people look at me with them. So I cut them off. My children are more important to me than my hair! I need to be taken serious, because this is a serious issue. People can no longer judge me for my hair, and have to listen to what I’m saying cause now I look like you!!!
It shouldn’t matter what my hair looks like. This issue is serious, and needs to have more awareness brought to it. People are getting sick. There is an Exposure Investigation going on, that the timber boys have highjacked. The issue to TOO political for ORegon agencies to chime in on. So the people are left with NO HELP from the agencies. The governor takes too many ‘donations’ from the timber big boys to care!!
We in Oregon are going to start writing our own just laws concerning forestry sprays. CELDF (community environmental legal defense fund) is leading the way with the community rights movement, which elevates our rights, and our communities rights above that of the corporations by writing local ordinances!! We no longer rely on our government for help!! For they won’t help us, and they can’t help us due to the timber big boys writing laws already to shield them from us!

R.BABKA

August 11th, 2014

My daughter just finished her masters thesis on herbicide effects on the grazing equid pasture.She discovered that herbicides are detected in loam soil 6 months after application and the micro and macro nutrients are augmented during this time period when compared to a control.I agree with you and also believe that a safe grazing period that the manufacturers suggest is an error that needs to be changed perhaps even as far 6 months after application.If the hoof basement membrane is weakened then bacteria seeding is a reality.

Penny Paxton

December 9th, 2014

Several years ago a man was ahowing off all the money he was making. So after he left he was followed. He took his truck up into the forest land and dumped his poison and left. Big business paid him to get rid of their waste. Happens all the time. Terrible people

Steve and Cindy Bova

July 31st, 2015

Thank you John, I will def share this info!

William Jones

November 12th, 2015

I’ve been trying to fight this for years. It makes me sick. I was the one that has taken the most elk with hoof rot on video and was on KING 5 NEWS back in 2012. RMEF said they have funds to help out but have done nothing, and the state is to afraid of the timber companies. Who will help?

Eron

November 12th, 2015

In Lane County Oregon we’re collecting signatures to get an aerial spray ban on the ballot. This will be a way for people to have their voices heard!! This issue has got to be dealt with and we’re forcing their hand!
Please contact me or Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and they will show you how you can help write your own, more protective laws!! We need to BAN aerial spraying and we need to stop the corrupt Oregon agencies from shielding the timber corporations!!
#CommunityRights

Melinda Dauley

September 21st, 2016

I don’t even know how to function after reading all of this. This is not a single factor problem. It is not even close to a single factor problem.

Here’s what happens:
1. Treponema is introduced by livestock

2. Modern Forestry practices eliminate underbrush, eliminating two things:
a. Natural Tannins that keep the elk parasite free
b. Micronutrient stores in woody plants that provide elk with what they need especially copper and selenium that will prevent hoof rot.

I highly doubt, especially the amount that it RAINS here that elk are being poisoned on a continual basis by herbicides and solely by herbicides.

I will bet anyone that if a parasite load was taken from fecal samples from infected herds and liver samples were taken from infected herds, you will find two things:
1. A high parasite load compared to other non-infected herds
2. low level micronutrients in the liver samples.

bruce beavers

January 18th, 2017

how butt blind is are state . you know there was never hoof rot when there was slash burning. now there using the chemical atrazine that lowers the immune system of the elk. we need help fighting these timber companies . it also contaminates are water .its a damn shame as hunters we do nothing we need to stick together as one.

bruce beavers

January 18th, 2017

whats fair is fair they take what we care about the elk. we take what they care about there damn trees.

t6

February 11th, 2017

Its been a couple of years now since this was first published.

I hope that some of those that commented look back and see what has occurred and continue to ask questions.

To answer some of the questions that were raised :

cfordtuff

April 23rd, 2014

So why hasn’t this problem showed up outside of the 3 counties affected? I believe there is a strong correlation, but if this is the issue, then why hasn’t it shown up in Oregon, or the Olympic Peninsula, or in Skagit and Whatcom counties where there is just as much active logging and the use of herbicides? The WDFW released a statement not long ago stating that “Preliminary evidence suggests the involvement of an infectious bacterium”. It seems to me that any bacteria that may be causing this would 1) Die with the application of said herbicides, or 2) Be allowed to flourish in the animals from a suppressed immune system. Like the article says, until we independently study this, we may never know. The easiest way to do this is to stop the herbicides and eliminate the elk with hoof rot. No one wants to shoot a rotten elk anyway!

Reply : Its not just happening in the three counties. Its now been reported in Oregon, and in WA Counties including Snohomish.

Why wont the bacteria die with an application of herbicides? Could it be that the bacteria is and has always been in the soil. its the depletion of the elks immune system that causes them to fall victim of it now. With a proper immune system, they were able to fight off the bacteria on their own.

You are right No one wants to shoot a rotten elk however, many want to see them put out of their misery.

Melinda Dauley

September 21st, 2016

I don’t even know how to function after reading all of this. This is not a single factor problem. It is not even close to a single factor problem.

Here’s what happens:
1. Treponema is introduced by livestock

2. Modern Forestry practices eliminate underbrush, eliminating two things:
a. Natural Tannins that keep the elk parasite free
b. Micronutrient stores in woody plants that provide elk with what they need especially copper and selenium that will prevent hoof rot.

I highly doubt, especially the amount that it RAINS here that elk are being poisoned on a continual basis by herbicides and solely by herbicides.

I will bet anyone that if a parasite load was taken from fecal samples from infected herds and liver samples were taken from infected herds, you will find two things:
1. A high parasite load compared to other non-infected herds
2. low level micronutrients in the liver samples.

Reply : The herbicides being sprayed cause chelation. Chelation is what causes those micronutrients to be separated and forced down into the soils where the small forage pull them from. Without copper and selenium in the forage plants, the elk are deprived. Cant tell if tissue samples are being tested for toxins and micronutrients. WDFW won’t allow the testing and refuses to test for them.

Jon Gosch

February 11th, 2017

Thanks for the thoughtful response, t6! Keep on questioning the official story and holding our WDFW administrators accountable until we get to the bottom of this issue and are able to restore our iconic wild elk herds.

Guest

April 22nd, 2017

Everyone has a pretty good idea what may be causing the hoof rot… But what I still can’t understand is why it is only mutating and killing elk?? Why don’t the other animals that share the same forest lands with the elk have the same mutations? I know that the deer in sw washington have had wasting disease or what not in the past but that seems like it has been over come… Mysteriously… It just doesn’t make sense to me that it’s only the elk that are being affected by something sprayed across many thousands of acres?!?!

Jon Gosch

April 24th, 2017

Thanks for your question. It’s a very good one. The simple answer is that I don’t know, and I doubt anyone will until this disease is properly studied – meaning that all the likely contributing factors (including chemicals/forest practices) are honestly considered and thoroughly investigated. The longer answer to your question is that different species have different genetic coding and therefore respond to bacteria, toxicity, mineral deficiencies, poor forage, etc. in different ways. If you take a look at my article Save Our Elk (from toxic herbicides) you’ll read about how keratin irregularities can manifest not only as hoof deformities but also as disfigured beaks and hair loss. The last example has been well-documented in our local deer and may be their reaction to a disturbed environment. Another possibility is that the unnatural forest conditions are destabilizing elk health and making them unable to fight off hoof-deforming bacteria which aren’t typically passed along to deer. All that being said, I’ve recently heard reports of deer turning up with deformed hooves so maybe it’s beginning to affect them now as well. But again, these are theories, potentialities. We can’t trust anyone’s “science” until it is proven to be untainted by powerful corporate interests.

Kim Hamblin

April 24th, 2017

Interesting article, thank you for your efforts in teasing out these issues. We are near Willamina, Oregon and have elk that pass through our property. This past winter, I saw an elk limping severely. I assumed maybe it was hurt, but now I’m wondering if this could be the issue. I’ll keep an eye out for more issues next winter when they come back down. Have any issues been noted for this area?
On a side note, I’m wondering about plants that can be added to hedgerows to help with some of the nutritional needs for elk. Any suggestions? I have friends and neighbors who love the elk and might be convinced to make changes that could help them. Thanks

Jon Gosch

April 25th, 2017

Thanks for your questions and concern, Kim. I haven’t received reports of affected elk in your area yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some were developing hoof disease. Despite claims that hoof disease is restricted to northwest Oregon, there have been numerous reliable reports spread throughout western Oregon – always within walking distance of clear cuts which I notice surround Willamina. Please do keep an eye on it and feel free to pass along any observations, especially photos or video. As for helping with the nutritional needs of the elk, I don’t have much to suggest other than possibly some type of mineral block. If you read my article http://jongosch.com/save-our-elk-from-toxic-herbicides/ you’ll note that hoof deformities are often related to copper and selenium deficiencies which could theoretically be supplemented. Once the hooves overgrow, however, it’s very tough to remedy so prevention is the best cure. My advice is to help spread the word about this issue and contact your legislators to find out what they plan to do to address the contamination of your local forests and wildlife. Thanks again.

Matt

April 24th, 2017

Maybe killing the best and strongest bulls of the herds for 50 years has only left the weak ones to breed. Before the weak ones would of died off first. Not saying pesticides are good but maybe whiny hunters should look at themselves before pointing fingers.

Jon Gosch

April 25th, 2017

You make an interesting point about selective harvesting and it deserves consideration as a contributing factor. However, I would caution you not to blame ordinary hunters as they are not the ones who set the game regulations, nor do they generally have much control over how our forests are managed. And I don’t think it’s fair to call them whiny. Rather, they are rightfully enraged by mismanagement of resources they have inherited, stewarded, and hope to pass along to hunters and non-hunters alike. It can be tempting to characterize hunters as a bunch of ignorant Elmer Fudds, but in reality most hunters strive to protect wildlife populations so that they will be there in perpetuity.

Allison P.

April 24th, 2017

Should we be conscientious about herbicide use? Of course! But I hate to see fear towards such a useful tool when it most likely is not the culprit of hoof disease. The WDFW has found it to be associated with a bacteria:

http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/hoof_disease/

If you eliminate the use of herbicides, are you also willing to eliminate salmon from our rivers? Without the control of noxious weeds such as knotweed and purple loosestrife, those plants will take over waterways and choke out salmon and aquatic populations. Or what about noxious weeds which are poisonous to elk such as tansy? Many of these dangerous plant species are only killed effectively through herbicide application. So if we eliminate or ban the use of herbicide, we would see many other harmful effects in our natural areas. The health of our elk populations is incredibly important, and so are all the other species in our area which rely on native plants and vegetation.

Jon Gosch

April 25th, 2017

Thank you for your comments, Allison. While elk hoof disease may very well be “associated” with treponeme bacteria, that’s a long way from proving them to be the root cause. In fact, as I wrote about here http://jongosch.com/wdfws-treponema-theory-dismantled-by-technical-advisory-group-hoof-rot-continues-to-decimate-elk-herds/ numerous members of WDFW’s own highly-vaunted technical advisory group stated that bacteria alone cannot account for this disease and that forest practices like herbicide sprays need to be examined as contributing factors. Unfortunately, several WDFW officials working on this case have undermined their agency’s credibility through a series of misleading statements and their naked alliance with the timber and chemical industries as shown here http://jongosch.com/save-our-elk-from-toxic-herbicides/. Finally, there may prove to be a time and a place for herbicides, but until the chemical industry ceases to peddle in fraudulent studies (as has been demonstrated time and again), I believe we should be extremely wary of their use.

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