EPIC: Novel Hoof Disease Threatens Elk, Pacific Fishers Denied Protection

By Tom Wheeler, Executive Director

Novel Hoof Disease Detected in Del Norte Elk

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recently announced that treponeme-associated hoof disease (TAHD), a bacterial-associated syndrome causing severe lameness in elk, has been discovered in elk in Del Norte County. TAHD is already present in elk in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. From their experience, we understand that this disease is likely to cause significant disruptions to California’s elk. That’s why EPIC is leading the charge to change elk management. On June 10, 2020, EPIC filed a petition with the California Fish and Game Commission to restrict hunting in affected herds to avoid further impacting our elk. 

Roosevelt Elk. Photo by Linda Tanner, Flickr.

There is no cure or effective treatment for TAHD in wild populations. Lameness caused by TAHD has been found to impact up to 90% of elk in infected herds in Washington. There is strong evidence to suggest that TAHD could be a cause of population decline as well, with one infected herd suffering a 35% reduction in population across a four year study period. Our only hope is to minimize disease transfer and to mitigate impacts where present.

The discovery of the disease also calls into question planned expansion of elk hunting in the North Coast. In early April, the Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that it first discovered the disease in two elk in Del Norte County. However, no information concerning the disease was made public prior to a decision by the Commission to increase hunting on April 16. Among the Commission’s charges is to consider whether the increased hunting will, together with likely population declines from TAHD, cause a significant impact to local elk herds.

EPIC has petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to pass an emergency rule to pause hunting in the affected area. With significant potential population declines associated with the disease, we first need to not make the situation worse. Until the Department of Fish and Wildlife completes an action plan to stop the spread of the disease and mitigate the effects where present, we don’t believe that we should allow further hunting. 

Klamath-Siskiyou Pacific Fishers Denied Protections by US Fish and Wildlife Service

After acknowledging in 2019 that Pacific Fishers are threatened with extinction by a combination of logging, rodenticide poison use by marijuana growers, climate change and forest fire, the US Fish and Wildlife Service once again reversed course and denied protections for most fishers while only listing a small subset of the species as threatened in the southern Sierra Mountain Range. Remnant fisher populations in southern Oregon and Northern California remain unprotected.

Pacific Fisher. Photo credit: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region

Conservation groups petitioned to list the Pacific Fisher in 2000. In 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a rule finding that listing was warranted but did not finalize listing. Conservation groups sued in 2010 to force the Service to complete the listing process. Again, the Service proposed federal protection for the fisher in 2014, but then arbitrarily withdrew the proposal in 2016. Conservation organizations then filed suit alleging that the denial ignored the science in a politically motivated bow to the timber industry. As a result of today’s rule, the Service again put politics over science and ignored its own recommendations to protect Pacific Fishers in the Klamath-Siskiyous.

A relative of minks and otters, Pacific Fishers once roamed from British Columbia to Southern California. But due to intense logging and historical trapping, only two naturally occurring populations remain today: a population of 100 to 500 fishers in the southern Sierra Nevada and a population of between 250 and a few thousand in southern Oregon and Northern California. In a 2015 study, scientists conducting necropsies on fishers found that 85 percent had been exposed to rodent poison.

“Saving fishers will require better habitat protections,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center. “We both need to maintain more old, large trees and snags and make sure our forests are free from rodenticides. Over 85% of fishers have tested positive for rodenticide exposure. Fishers are our indicator that something is deeply wrong in California’s forests. The Service has thrown the needs of the fisher under the bus by ignoring the needs of the southern Oregon and northern California population.”