Eastern Elk Ecology and Management



Symposia will be available on-demand on their scheduled date, then again at the conclusion of the conference.

Elk once were widely distributed throughout eastern North America, but over harvest and habitat alterations resulted in extirpation of elk from the vast majority of eastern-most historical range. There are now numerous programs aimed at restoring elk to portions of eastern states with the goal of providing recreational opportunities in the form of hunting and wildlife viewing. However, there are numerous challenges to the restoration of this charismatic megafauna in the fragmented landscape of eastern North America. There is a growing body of research across eastern states with elk populations and our sessions is designed to facilitate the exchange of knowledge that has been accumulated through addressing challenges and opportunities in a range of bio-political systems.

Elk Research and Management: How Science from the Western Us Can Inform Elk Management in the East
Michel T. Kohl; Lacy M. Smith; Gavin G. Cotterill
Historically, elk were one of the most widely distributed deer species in North America. Following European expansion, elk populations were extirpated from much of their range. Reintroduction efforts and natural recolonization have since resulted in large populations across much of western North America and smaller, more isolated populations in parts of the historical eastern range. The high biological, social, and economic value placed on elk has facilitated immense interest in the management and conservation of the species, resulting in long-term datasets from across the West on elk space use, demography, and disease. Here we review the methodology, results, and implications of some recent studies from the West with an eye on how these should serve to inform management of eastern elk herds. For elk space use, we explore predation risk (human and natural) and its ecological implications for lower trophic levels. For elk demography, we examine the additive and compensatory mortality associated with climate and predation. For disease, we highlight the old, but ongoing fight against brucellosis and the newer threat posed by chronic wasting. Our goal in highlighting each of these studies is to identify similarities in management goals between eastern and western elk populations and provide recommendations for how we might establish and/or adapt monitoring protocols to answer similar pressing questions for eastern elk.
A Historical Perspective of Kentucky’s Elk Reintroduction Program: Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Stochasticity
John J. Cox
Animal reintroduction programs have been a hallmark activity of wildlife management and conservation in the past 125 years, with varying levels of success. The elk is an important game species of North America that was quickly extirpated east of the Mississippi River in the 1800s. Only a few decades later, however, the species was translocated to various regions of the U.S. to establish free-ranging populations. Kentucky implemented a bold elk reintroduction program from 1997-2002, moving over 1500 individuals in an attempt to establish a large, regional population. Initial major concerns about demographic and disease issues, and potential negative ecological and sociological impacts, proved minimal over the next few years, and the population experienced irruptive growth to its current number of nearly 14,000 despite nearly 20 continuous years of hunting. Kentucky elk were subsequently used as founder or supplemental stock for various eastern state elk programs, including Missouri, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Herein, we review the general history, factors and circumstances that led to one of the most successful wildlife reintroduction programs in the U.S. and identify and discuss current and future challenges.
Genetic Characteristics of Restored Elk Populations in Kentucky
Jordan L. Youngmann; Randy W. DeYoung; Stephen Demarais; Bronson K. Strickland; Gabe Jenkins
Translocations are a common management practice to restore or augment populations. Understanding the genetic consequences of translocation efforts is important for the long‐term health of restored populations. The restoration of elk (Cervus canadensis) to Kentucky, USA, included source stocks from 6 western states, which were released at 8 sites in southeastern Kentucky during 1997-2002. We assessed genetic diversity in restored herds and compared genetic similarity to source stocks based on 15 microsatellite DNA loci. Genetic variation in the restored populations was comparable to source stocks ( allelic richness = 3.52 and 3.50; expected heterozygosity = 0.665 and 0.661 for restored and source, respectively). Genetic differentiation among all source and restored populations ranged from 0.000 to 0.065 for pairwise FST and 0.034 to 0.161 for pairwise Nei’s DA. Pairwise genetic differentiation and Bayesian clustering revealed that stocks from Utah and North Dakota, USA, contributed most to restored populations. Other western stocks appeared less successful and were not detected with our data, though our sampling was not exhaustive. We also inferred natural movements of elk among release sites by the presence of multiple genetic stocks. The success of the elk restoration effort in Kentucky may be due, in part, to the large number of elk (n = 1,548), repeated releases, and use of diverse source stocks. Future restoration efforts for elk in the eastern United States should consider the use of multiple stock sources and a large number of individuals. In addition, preservation of genetic samples of founder stock will enable detailed monitoring in the future.
Reproductive Isolation and Stocking Source of Elk in Tennessee
Lisa I. Muller; Jennifer L. Murrow; Jason L. Lupardus; Joseph D. Clark; Joseph G. Yarkovitch; Willian H. Stiver; Kim Delozier; Brad F. Miller; Eryn M. Watson; Katherine A. Kurth; Dailee L. Metts
Elk Island National Park (EINP), Alberta, Canada was used as a stocking source for elk (Cervus canadensis) reintroduction in parts of eastern North America including the Cumberland Mountains, Tennessee (TNCM), Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina (GSMNP), and Land Between the Lakes, western Kentucky (LBL). Additionally, LBL (with EINP elk directly or their offspring) was used as a stocking source for the programs in TNCM and GSMNP. These elk are considered to be of the Manitoban subspecies (C. canadensis manitobensis). A major highway bisects EINP into a north side (EINPN), high fenced and isolated since 1907, and a south side (EINPS) high fenced in 1947. Before translocation, elk were trapped on both sides of the highway and brought to a central handling facility and mixed together. All sites including LBL, TNCM and GSMNP received elk from both sides of EINP. The focus described here is on the genetic composition of elk released in TNCM and GSMNP and their offspring. Elk were translocated to TNCM (201) from 2000-2008 and GSMNP (52) from 2001-2002. We used 16 microsatellite markers and a Bayesian clustering analysis (Program STRUCTURE) to analyze genetic composition of the 2 populations and found distinct profiles for elk from EINPN and EINPS. We have been studying the success of these 2 genetic groups for 20 years since translocation by sampling from hunter harvest, mortalities from elk-vehicle collision, fecal samples on the landscape and animals captured for marking and tagging. We have documented minimal admixture between EINPN and EINPS and found the groups have mostly persisted years after release. This within-cluster breeding bias occurs despite individual elk overlapping on the landscape and the possibility for long-distance movements.
Elk in Virginia: Transitioning from Establishment to Management
David M. Kalb
After a failed attempt at elk restoration in the early-mid 1900’s, Virginia biologists once again began to contemplate the feasibility of re-establishing elk after successes observed in Kentucky. A cooperative study looking at biologically and socially acceptable regions within the state was completed in 2002 but actions to actively restore animals were not taken until 2010. Changes in both public administrative opinions within the elk zone, and Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR) management practices, obscured public knowledge, and acceptance regarding the potential for elk in VA. After 75 animals were successfully established on private land in southwest Virginia, the public helped to develop guidelines regarding the management of elk for the next ten years. The Virginia Elk Management Plan (EMP) provides both the public and the agency clarity and direction on strategies to accomplish elk related goals. The people of Virginia are overwhelmingly in favor of managing elk but as the population grows, VDWR staff is challenged with managing a public resource located primarily on private lands. In response to the EMP, VDWR now focuses on finding a balanced cultural carrying capacity within a defined management zone and increasing public knowledge about elk. After legislative approval to create a special elk hunting license was recently granted, VDWR staff designed hunting regulations and developed partnerships with large landowners in the elk zone to create future, public hunting and viewing opportunities. Recently established public viewing areas are drawing ever-increasing tourism and have started to impact the local economy.
Spatial Ecology of Reintroduced Elk In Southwestern Virginia
Heather N. Abernathy; David M. Kalb; Braiden A. Quinlan; Emily D. Thorne; William M. Ford; Michael J. Cherry
Understanding how reintroduced animals acclimate to novel environments while optimizing space use is important for informed management decisions. From 2012 – 2014 the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources implemented a soft-release of elk (Cervus canadensis) translocated from Kentucky to southwestern Virginia. A subset of translocated animals were fitted with GPS collars and monitored post-release. To investigate home range establishment of reintroduced female elk, we quantified movement and space use following reintroduction for a subset of individuals who were monitored for ≥ two years (n = 23). We implemented a moving window approach to examine patterns of weekly movement and space use. We also estimated size and joint overlap of home ranges for individual females from the same biological seasons in subsequent years (first, second, and third year post-release). Elk exhibited variation in weekly movement and space use that often correlated with on the onset of biological seasons. Further, we observed differences for the same individuals in the size and overlap of home ranges, particularly during energetically demanding biological seasons. Despite considerable variation among individuals, energetically demanding seasons (e.g., early and late gestation) explained high movement rates and increased space use, suggesting seasonal reductions in forage quality and/or abundance prompted exploratory behavior. Although individual variation existed, many females occupied increasingly smaller home ranges in the years following release, presumably, as a function of increased familiarity with spatial and temporal patterns of resource availability. However, with the onset of spring green-up, most females exhibited increased movement rates and home range size as they sought to meet nutritional demands associated with reproduction. Our findings suggest that exploration of novel landscapes by reintroduced elk may be influenced by energetic requirements associated with their life history strategy.
Habitat Selection and the Future of Early Successional Habitat for Elk in Southeast Kentucky
John T. Hast
Fifty adult bull elk were captured and GPS radio-marked between 2011-2013 to investigate resource selection in a study area within the Kentucky elk restoration zone. Using a 90% minimum convex polygon as a home range estimator, 100 pseudo-absences were placed within the home range and regressed against the used points. Elk resource selection was evaluated using logistic mixed-effects regression analysis with multiple habitat characteristics. At each presence and pseudo-absence location, regression fixed effects were extracted from overlapping geographic information system layers for orthoimagery-reclassified habitat (bare, grass or forest), landsat-reclassified habitat (other, developed, barren, deciduous, evergreen, mixed, scrub and grass), topographic position index, slope, distance to road, distance to a 4.04 ha grass patch and area solar radiation index. Bull elk home range was found to be the largest in the fall of the year, both day and night. Bull elk used grass habitats more so that forest habitats in all seasons except summer day, where forest was selected 47% more than grass. Use of habitat decreased as elk moved away from 4.05 ha grass patches in all seasons except for the winter night season. In all seasonal models, elk selected for areas near the top of the slope as indicated by topographic position index and preferred less steep slopes. The distance from road variable was used in three seasonal models. In the winter day model, selection increased by 7% for every one-unit increase in distance from road, while use decreased by 6% and 4% for summer 25 day and night, respectively, as elk moved away from roads. Elk managers in Kentucky should focus their efforts on maintaining healthy grassland patches within the existing forested matrix.
Aerialsurvey for Estimating Pennsylvania’s Elk Population:Combininginfrared and High-Definition Imagery
Jeremiah E. Banfield; Chris Rosenberry; Ian Gregg; Matthew Schnupp
Managing Pennsylvania’s elk (Cervus canadensis) population requires accurate estimates of the number of elk in each hunt zone as well as classification of age and sex (cow, calf, bull, spike). Population estimates are used to determine annual license allocations, predict and mitigate human-elk conflicts, gauge and alleviate habitat degradation, and predict population growth rates and expansions in distribution. In addition, concerns about chronic wasting disease (CWD) and an interested public demand an accurate and geographically specific population estimate. In this study, we used infrared cameras combined with side-by-side high definition imagery mounted on a fixed-wing aircraft to survey and classify most of the occupied elk management area. We used a simple mark-resight design, where a known number of marked elk (radio-collared elk) were distributed across the elk management area and available for observation during the survey. The numbers of marked and unmarked elk observed during each flight were used to generate an estimate of the overall elk population. The survey took place from February 14 – March 8, 2020. The flight crew observed 36 of 61 radio marked individuals yielding a detection rate of 59%. A total of 843 unmarked individuals were observed for a final estimate of 1474 (SE 149). Overall the technique was effective but minor changes to the flight transects could improve future detection rates. Limitations and logistics will be discussed.
Onesize Does Not Fit All in Population Restoration: Genetic Considerations from the Missouri Elk Restoration
Ellen Pero; Donovan Bell; Zak Robinson; M. Colter Chitwood; Barbara Keller; Aaron Hildreth; Leah Berkman; Chelsea Titus; Joshua J. Millspaugh
Population restoration is an inherently costly conservation practice. There are multiple translocation models involving complicated decisions, so it is important to tailor each translocation process to site-specific objectives in a way that minimizes cost while maximizing project success. We compared genetic diversity retention associated with the relatively low-founder, multi-release, single admixed stock translocation model of the Missouri elk restoration to that observed in Kentucky’s large-scale high-founder, multi-release, multi-stock model. We further estimated effective population size and projected future losses in genetic diversity if the restored Missouri elk herd is maintained at state-ascribed population size with no migration from neighboring states. Though Missouri and Kentucky’s population objectives differed in scale and extent, we observed similar levels of genetic diversity retention across both states’ successful restorations as evidenced by heterozygosity and allelic richness. Our projections indicated 10% diversity loss within the Missouri population within roughly 200 years. While factors such as elk polygyny may further hasten genetic diversity loss, we examined annual paternity in the restored Missouri elk herd and observed lower levels of polygyny in the initial years following translocation. Bias toward young males is standard practice in elk translocation, and this may temporarily disrupt typical polygynous breeding structure. Though the disruption is temporary, it may be conducive to retention of genetic diversity in restored elk populations. Affirming translocation strategies and understanding implications of translocation practice on population processes is increasingly relevant as conservation translocation activities increase worldwide. We stress the importance of tailoring translocation model to site-specific population objectives to maximize adaptive management (e.g., monitoring genetic and demographic parameters) while minimizing cost.
Panel Discussion: Building a Research Network to Support Eastern Elk Management
Michael Cherry
Elk once were widely distributed throughout eastern North America, but over harvest and habitat alterations resulted in extirpation of elk from the vast majority of the eastern extent of their historical range. There are now numerous programs aimed at restoring elk to portions of eastern states with the goal of providing recreational opportunities in the form of hunting and wildlife viewing. However, there are many challenges to the restoration of this charismatic megafauna in the fragmented landscape of eastern North America. There is a growing body of research across eastern states with elk populations and this panel discussion was designed to facilitate the exchange of knowledge that has been accumulated through addressing challenges and opportunities in a range of bio-political systems. Presenters from the session on Eastern Elk Ecology Management will discuss issues facing restoration and management efforts and research priorities to support eastern elk management.

Organizers: Michael J. Cherry, Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Kingsville, TX; Michel Kohl, University of Georgia, Athens, GA; Matthew T. Springer, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
Supported by: Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Hunting, Trapping and Conservation Working Group

Location: Virtual Date: September 29, 2020 Time: -