Some may protest my use of the word toxic, but what else should one call a chemical which has been proven to drastically weaken immune systems, alter an amphibian’s gender, mutate rats’ genes for generations, and which was banned by the European Union due to “ubiquitous and unpreventable water contamination?”
The toxic herbicide whose destructive capabilities I’ve just described is known as atrazine, and it is widely sprayed by our state’s timber industry.
We also shouldn’t hesitate calling glyphosate or 2,4-D toxic herbicides. Glyphosate (the main ingredient in Roundup) is known to pollute waterways, strip soils of vital nutrients, and is in the process of being banned by California and the EU. It was also declared “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization in 2015.
Then there’s 2,4-D, best known as half of the infamous Agent Orange defoliant used during the Vietnam War as part of our country’s herbicidal warfare program. 2,4-D is commonly sprayed in forestry and food production settings, and has been linked to endocrine disruption, thyroid disorders, birth defects and cancer.
“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.”