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Science and Innovations

Brain Worm Kills Some Elk Shipped From Arizona To West Virginia

Arizona Game and Fish Department

A herd of Arizona elk shipped to West Virginia in 2018 for a restoration project has been hit hard by a brain worm disease. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports. 

Wildlife officials say the parasite has killed 30 percent of the transplanted herd. It lives in the brains of whitetail deer, which are usually unaffected. The elk contracted the disease from parasitic eggs in the grass.

Jim Crum, a wildlife disease expert in West Virginia, says, "They pick it up by inadvertently ingesting a snail or a slug… and not all elk that pick up the parasite die." Crum says the Arizona animals may have been more vulnerable to illness either because they haven’t encountered the parasite before or because of the stress of captivity during the 120-day quarantine.

Paul Johansen of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources says some mortality was expected. "We hope to supplement the herd with some additional animals, but at the end of the day those Arizona elk were and continue to be extremely important in terms of the overall success of our restoration effort."

West Virginia lost its native elk to overhunting a century ago. The Arizona animals make up about a third of the reintroduced herd; the rest are from Kentucky or are newborn calves.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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