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.
“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.
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This past April marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Rachel Carson. And while I certainly bemoan her absence and miss her Silent Spring voice, I mourn more for the fact that her life’s work and sacrifice on our behalf has apparently taught many of us little or nothing. Exhibit “A” in this thesis is the list of herbicides contained in a 2012 private forestry spraying application for a 3,416 acre unit near the Willapa Headwaters in southwestern Washington (thank you, Jon Gosch).
Rachel’s story is a powerful one and too often repeated. Here’s how it goes: A systems thinker (in her case a marine biologist) noticing trends and problems in the natural world compiles evidence that establishes correlative links between a chemical or chemicals and a natural or human health issue and then brings it to the public’s attention. These are not “proofs” in the traditional scientific sense but rather concrete rationales for further investigation—in short these are the building blocks of testable hypotheses.
But once these building blocks form and become known, a storm of industry-led criticism always follows. We know the pattern: Credentials and motivations are questioned; industry scientists rush in to defend the safety of products; new brochures addressing criticisms are prepared; and those offering the hypotheses are quickly and roughly kicked to curb for being un-American, job-killers, communists or worse. In all of this we have to really wonder where the sin lies in raising legitimate and justifiable concerns. And when exactly did poisoning our wildlife and future generations become an American value?
“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.”
Over the last several years through numerous blog posts and comments Cascadia Wildlands has been forwarding two important notions. The first is that state wildlife commissions (and therefore agencies) in the West are too beholding to resource-oriented industries such as ranching, timber, mining and energy interests at the expense of hunters, anglers and our ever-dwindling wildlife legacy.
And, at the same time, western wildlife commissions are too accepting of the ideas forwarded by some extreme hunting groups that increasingly reflect the views of these same resource-dependent industries such as increasing clearcuts, aggressive predator control, protection of public lands grazing and more road creation for access rather than hitting the conservation sweet spots of habitat restoration, wilderness preservation, road retirement and water quality improvement. In essence, both the commissions and these more trophy hunting-oriented groups have been quietly coopted by the very elements that do damage to the natural resources needed by all wildlife and fish.
The most recent and troubling example involves the issue of hoof rot in Washington State’s Roosevelt elk herds. No one knows for sure at this point what is causing the hoof rot in southwestern Washington, but there are a lot of candidates both of a direct and indirect nature. One hypothesis that was put forth recently is that there is some link between combinations of factors that could include herbicide use by the forest products industry and a bacterial infection known as leptospirosis. Leptospirosis often causes severe muscle pain in mammals which might explain the limping observed in these elk as well as the lack of hoof wear on the sore legs. Leptospirosis has been present in Washington for decades.
As a wildlife biologist who frequently looks at complex interactions, I can appreciate a scenario that includes multiple causes such as massive habitat changes and herbicide use that put elk in a vulnerable condition so they present the variety of symptoms we are observing with this hoof rot phenomenon. But the idea of this being driven by leptospirosis or via an herbicide link—either through decreased habitat quality or consumption effects—has been met with apparent resistance in spite of efforts by a retired public health researcher and an expert on leptospirosis detection, Dr. Boone Mora, and hunter Jon Gosch who has written two well-researched blog posts on the topic. In addition, farrier Krystal Davies has also made a rather cogent argument for this being laminitis associated with or driven by herbicides.