TOUTLE, Wash. - Up to 90 percent of some Western Washington elk herds are falling victim to a disorder that results in deformed hooves.

It is known informally as hoof rot, a variety of disorders that, in this case, are leaving elk with grotesquely deformed hooves that can cripple and leave them susceptible to starvation, disease or easy prey for predators.

Mark Smith, who owns the Eco Park Resort near Mount St. Helens, has been feeding elk in a large herd. They were starving to death back in the late 1990s. He said he knows feeding elk is not a good thing, but these elk cannot find enough food in the Mount St. Helens blast zone. He said now he has to watch the hoof disorder pick them off one by one.

Smith and others asked the State Department of Fish and Wildlife to begin inoculating the herd with penicillin or other drugs to slow down the disorder, which has been getting worse year by year.

Wildlife officials are hunting infected elk this month to get fresh samples of the deformed hooves. They said until they can find out exactly what is causing the disorder, they cannot treat it. They said even then, it is difficult to inoculate wild animals and can upset the balance of the herd if the disorder is nature's way of thinning an unhealthy herd.

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