The aftereffects of West Virginia’s 2018 elk stockings have reared their ugly heads.
Almost one-third of the 46 elk cows and calves imported from Arizona died of brainworm in 2019, said Randy Kelley, elk project leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.
Kelley believes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s insistence on keeping the elk penned up for 120 days, and then requiring an additional disease test, so weakened the animals physically that they were unable to survive.
“If we had been able to release those elk promptly, and without having to recapture each one of them individually for re-testing, I think a lot more of them would have survived,” Kelley said.
In 2016, when West Virginia imported its first batch of 24 elk from the Land Between the Lakes Elk and Bison Prairie in western Kentucky, the animals were captured, tested for diseases, and kept in Kentucky for 30 days before being shipped to the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in Logan County for release.
But in 2018, when West Virginia obtained 60 elk from the state of Arizona, USDA officials insisted on a much more stringent handling protocol. The elk — 50 cows and 10 bulls — were tested and held for 30 days in Arizona, then were held an additional 90 days in West Virginia. Four of the cows died during that period, from injury or from stress.
“We poured the feed and water into those elk, but the extra quarantine period lasted into June,” Kelley said. “Despite our efforts, those animals lost weight. And then, just before we released them, we had to capture them again for that second disease test. They were badly stressed when we finally released them.”
The Arizona elk were set free just three months before the mating season began.
“Between the extended quarantine and the stresses of the mating season, those animals were in poor condition headed into the winter,” Kelley said. “But then spring popped around, and that’s when they should have had the opportunity to put on a lot of weight.”
Indeed, the elk gorged themselves on West Virginia’s abundant greenery. But when they did, some of them accidentally ingested brainworms.
Brainworms are common in West Virginia’s white-tailed deer. The parasites don’t appear to affect whitetails, but they can be deadly to other antlered animals, particularly elk and moose.
Kelley said elk don’t get brainworms directly from deer; instead, they get them from snails or slugs.
“The deer excrete brainworm eggs, and the eggs get ingested by snails and slugs,” he explained. “When elk graze on grass, they pick up the snails by accident. The worms work their way out of the elk’s rumens, get into the bloodstream and end up in the brain.”
Once there, the brainworms burrow through the elk’s brains, creating holes that cause the animal to lose control of eating and other bodily functions.
“The animal ends up wasting away,” Kelly said.
Had the Arizona elk been in better condition, or had the spring of 2019 not been as wet as it was, Kelley believes more of the animals would have survived.
“The wet spring meant we had a lot more snails and slugs than usual,” he said. “And, unfortunately, the cows and calves we released in 2018 started the spring of 2019 with low body weights after their long quarantine. That made them a lot more susceptible to brainworm infestations.”
DNR officials expected to lose what Kelley calls “a few elk a year” to the parasite.
“Anywhere elk are present in the eastern United States — Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania — some of them die from brainworm,” he said. “However, the losses we incurred last year were far beyond what we expected.”
In ordinary elk populations, natural reproduction tends to compensate for brainworm-related losses. Kelley said West Virginia’s overstressed cows were unable to do that.
“For us, overcoming losses is hard because we have so few elk on the ground,” he added.
Headed into last spring, Kelley estimated the size of the state’s nascent elk herd at 85 to 95 animals. After the losses, he dropped the estimate into the 75-80 range.
“That number should be over 100 by now,” he said. “If not for the [USDA], it would be.”
Kelley said DNR officials are working to obtain more elk, but a recent recommendation by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies is stalling the effort.
“Last year, they recommended against transporting cervids across state lines,” he explained. “A lot of state agencies have taken that recommendation to heart. Until something changes, we’re pretty much on hold.”