Washington State University will open its $1.2 million elk hoof rot disease research center in Pullman before the end of this calendar year, and studies with captive elk are expected to begin by next spring.
Researchers say the experiments at the facility will advance their study of what's causing the disease and can directly inform strategies for managing wild elk herds.
It's a big step forward for a state-funded research program directed at managing the hoof disease that's plagued elk in Southwest Washington -- and across the region -- for years.
"I think that (the research center) will really allow us to move research forward in an effective and efficient manner" because it provides a secure, controlled environment to study the disease, said lead scientist Margaret Wild.
The research center is the only lab of its kind in the world. Once finished, it will cover about four acres and include 10 isolation pens, a handling facility and two 1.5-acre holding pastures.
Wild said she expects preliminary experiment results from studies with captive elk at the center by next winter. Initial experiments will focus on confirming whether the disease is infectious and contagious from one animal to another.
"Through time, we will do additional experiments where we manipulate variables and test other components that might make the elk more susceptible to the disease or less susceptible to the disease," Wild said.
Wild's goal with the research is to create strategies to manage the hoof disease in free-ranging elk. Cases of afflicted elk have been confirmed in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, Wild said.
"It's really important that the research we do is applicable and will eventually lead to reducing the harm from the disease," she said.
Elk hoof disease is a bacteria-associated syndrome that causes severe lameness in elk due to deformed, overgrown, broken or sloughed hooves. (It's commonly referred to as hoof rot, but scientists call it elk hoof disease so as not to confuse it with a different disease of domestic livestock.)
So far, a specific cause for the disease has not been pinpointed.
State legislators provided $1.5 million in the 2017-2019 budget to fund a research program to learn more about the disease. Most of that money went toward building the research center, said Wild, who was hired in August 2018 to lead the WSU research program.
Just months into her second year at the helm of research program, Wild said there hasn't been any "groundbreaking findings," but she and her team have laid the foundation for future research.
"We've got to manage our expectations and recognize that this is a very complex situation. It's not as though we can just do one experiment and have the answers to everything," Wild said.
Wild's team is investigating the causes of the disease through a "suite of research," she said. That means they will use several different methods to learn more.
One piece of the suite is experiments with captive elk at the research center.
"In captivity, we will be able to start to tease different variables apart and understand how each one contributes, instead of having them all work together, as is the case in the wild," Wild said.
Scientists will also work in genetic labs to study the types of bacteria present in hoof lesions. The disease is currently associated with a spiral-shaped bacteria called treponeme, but Wild said the lab work can reveal whether other bacteria play a role in the disease.
"I speculate that it's not just one type of bacteria, that there's multiple bacteria working together to cause those lesions," Wild said.
Researchers will also complete a "social science inquiry," to study the beliefs, values and concerns of different stakeholders, such as hunters, conservationists, live stock products and native tribes. The research team is sending out surveys to a "select group of Washington residents" this winter to gather more perspectives, Wild said.
"Everybody's input is important," Wild said. "We want to make sure we are hearing everybody. ... We want to make sure the work we are pursuing and the kinds of answers and approaches we are investing are ones that people would be supportive of."