Larry Gitch spent three August weekends in the Boistfort area in Lewis County scouting elk.
"I would say in 60 percent or better of the animals, I would see hoof rot," said Gitch, a Vancouver resident who had a master hunter elk permit for an area near Vader.
"Some of them did not want to put their feet on the ground," Gitch said. "Some of them would actually drag their feet. ... It's a pretty sad deal. It was just hard to watch at times."
Hunters who headed out for the modern rifle general bull elk season in Western Washington were likely to see animals in the same condition.
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Biologists, hunters and wildlife watchers are seeing more Southwest Washington elk with misshapen, sometimes crossing hooves.
"In the past three years it's become really acute," said Pat Miller, a wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The condition seems most common in the lowlands east and west of Interstate 5, Miller said.
Last summer, one of Cliff Wheeler's motion-activated cameras photographed the cow elk pictured above.
The camera was set up in the woods near Wheeler's Tower Road home, east of Castle Rock.
Mark Smith, who lives at his Eco Park resort near the Toutle River 20 miles east of the freeway, said he's seen hoof rot in that area.
"I've seen it all the way from the (Weyerhaeuser) Forest Learning Center all the way down the valley," Smith said.
Gitch said a friend who recently spent a week hunting with a Mount Whittier tag north of Spirit Lake didn't see any hoof rot in the elk there.
The WDFW has sent surveys to hunters to learn more about how far hoof rot has spread.
Hoof rot hasn't been observed in elk elsewhere in the United States, said Kristin Mansfield, a WDFW veterinarian based in Spokane.
However, a similar condition has been seen in moose from Southeast Alaska, Mansfield said.
Last spring, WDFW biologists shot eight elk in the Castle Rock, Vader and Pe Ell areas and collected tissue samples to study hoof rot.
Five of the animals had misshapen hooves and the others appeared healthy.
"We didn't get any straight answers," Mansfield said. "We were able to rule out a few things."
For instance, she doesn't think the condition is caused by a genetic problem or toxic plants the elk ate.
Some of the animals had mineral deficiencies, Miller said.
Hoof rot appears in both bull and cow elk of all ages, Mansfield said.
More than 40 types of hoof rot afflict wild and domestic animals.
Hoof rot that elk get is similar to a type seen in domestic sheep, Mansfield said, though the progression of the condition is reversed.
Sheep hoof rot starts with a bacterial infection.
With the elk, hooves don't wear normally, which allows bacteria to get into them.
"It almost seems as if they grow too long first," Mansfield said.
Increased levels of hoof rot haven't been reported in local cattle and sheep, and it isn't a health hazard to humans, Mansfield said.
Because it's painful for them to walk, elk with hoof rot have trouble foraging and are sometimes emaciated.
Gitch said some of the Boistfort elk he saw "were so sick you could see their haunches."
Possible causes of elk hoof rot include nutritional deficiencies, dietary changes and either decreased activity or more walking on soft soils, Mansfield wrote in a paper on the subject.
Smith said his research suggests overpopulation and lack of nutrition are causing the hoof rot.
Smith and other members of the Mount St. Helens Preservation Society feed elk at Eco Park during winter months.
Last winter, an elk that could barely walk improved after several weeks of getting hay.
But the WDFW isn't ready to suggest how elk can recovery without more research.
In any case, Mansfield said treatments for free-ranging wildlife are limited.
"It's difficult to do any hands-on things like trim the hoofs."
Elk with hoof rot may not look healthy, but the meat from unaffected parts of their bodies is safe to eat.
Hunters' "eyes and their nose are their best guide to whether that part of the elk is appropriate to eat," Miller said. "If it doesn't smell right, throw it out. There are some herds that have a lot of limping elk."
Gitch shot an elk with hoof rot and asked his meat cutter for advice.
The butcher told him the meat above the hoof rot joints was OK.
"I've eaten it and it's no problem at all," Gitch said.