Ungulate Ecology & Management-Elk & Moose

Contributed Oral Presentations

Contributed paper sessions will be available on-demand for the duration of the conference, then again at the conclusion of the conference.


Elk in the Old Dominion: Assessment of Habitat Selection
Braiden A. Quinlan; Heather N. Abernathy; David Kalb; Emily D. Thorne; William M. Ford; Michael J. Cherry
Many eastern states are undergoing North American elk (Cervus canadensis) restoration for their intrinsic roles in ecosystem maintenance, and for the sporting and observational recreation opportunities, they provide the public. From 2012 – 2014 the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries implemented a soft-release of translocated elk from Kentucky to Buchanan County in southwestern Virginia. A subset of translocated animals was fitted with GPS collars and monitored post-release. Using post-release elk GPS data from 2013 – 2017, we implemented a use-available design to examine elk (n= 63) seasonal resource selection. Our objectives were to quantify habitat selection to elucidate novel habitat associations of elk with seasonal variation within southwestern Virginia and to quantify potential elk-human conflict. We separated land cover into seven distinct types: oak forests, cove hardwood, pine, mines, open land (excluding mines), developed, and water. Elk selected reclaimed mines with reduced topographic complexity during all seasons whereas all forest types, with the exception of pine, were selected less than expected. Selection of non-mined, open land peaked during winter perhaps to access cool-season forages whereas important cover habitat (e.g., pine cover types) were used proportional to availability. Across seasons, elk avoided oak forests suggesting less potential for interspecific competition with other wildlife for hard-mast than previously believed. Our results suggest that forest dominated landscapes are not ideal for elk. However, reclamation mines present a unique opportunity for restoring elk and other early successional habitat dependent species in the central Appalachian Mountains. Within the coalfield region of southwestern Virginia, large areas of predicted high-quality habitat occur in adjacent Dickenson and Wise counties and these areas may represent important opportunities for herd expansion. However, there is greater likelihood for elk-human conflict in areas with fewer mines and more pastureland.
Resource Selection of a Translocated Elk Population in North Carolina
Don White, Jr.; Justin McVey; Christopher L. Watt; Christopher T. Rota
Elk (Cervus canadensis) were reintroduced to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) in 2001 as an experimental population. In 2008, the National Park Service declared the experimental stage complete and transferred the responsibility for elk management outside of GSMNP to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC). Since 2011, it has been the goal of the NCWRC to establish a sustainable, huntable elk population in North Carolina. Suitable habitat availability is an important factor in ensuring the success of an elk population. Limited information exists, however, on resource selection of elk in eastern North America. Our objective was to determine resource selection of male and female elk in North Carolina. We placed global positioning system (GPS) collars on 25 adult elk (9 males, 16 females) between December 2012 and May 2019. We modeled seasonal resource selection as a function of 13 habitat-related covariates using a hierarchical Bayesian discrete choice model. Elk tended to select relatively open land cover types. Pasture, shrub/scrub, grassland, and developed open space were used at rates greater than these cover types were available. Likewise, deciduous, evergreen, and mixed forests were used at rates greater than were available. In contrast, elk avoided medium and high intensity development, croplands, and standing water. Low intensity development, woody wetlands, and barren land were used in proportion to their availability. Elk were more likely to use areas close to edges, but far from paved roads and water. Elk were also more likely to use areas with relatively mild slopes and with greater NDVI. Neither aspect, distance to unpaved roads, nor elevation influenced elk resource selection. Elk managers in similar ecosystems should ensure sufficient availability of forage openings, early successional plant communities, and other natural open lands.
Bull Elk Antler Size and Survival: A Balancing Act between Forage Quality and Vulnerability
Hans Martin; Mark Hebblewhite; Evelyn H. Merrill
Migration is a behavioral strategy used to access resources or avoid predation in spatially and temporally heterogenous landscapes. On the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains near Banff National Park, Canada, female elk (Cervus canadensis) that migrate gain access to higher quality forage and experience less wolf predation risk on the summer range than residents. However, the effect of migration and local habitat selection on male elk fitness has received limited attention. We addressed how migration and habitat use affect male elk antler size and survival, two key components of their reproductive success and desirability to hunters. We predicted that because migratory animals have access to higher quality forage and avoid predation, they will have higher survival and larger antlers than non-migratory bull elk. From 2018 to 2020, we GPS-radiocollared 73 individual bull elk for a total ~ 120 animal-years. First, we tested for the effect of forage quality and migratory tactic on antler size of GPS-collared bulls controlling for age. Next, we used Cox-proportional hazards models to determine the relative effect of predation risk, forage quality, and migratory strategy on survival using age as a covariate to account for harvest vulnerability on the probability of survival. Finally, we related annual antler growth between time of capture and harvest for a subset of ~30 bull elk to test for impacts of exposure to forage quality on antler growth. We found results consistent with our predictions but variation among individuals was less driven by migratory tactics than expected. Individual patterns in migration and the resulting differences in vulnerability and antler growth is key to managing bull elk age structure under antler point restrictions.
Reconsidering Elk Management in Mexico Will Impact North American Rewilding Efforts and International Wildlife Management Progress
Kyle James Shaney
Wildlife restoration requires nuanced approaches that consider historical distributions, taxonomy, ecology, social support and overall future conservation objectives. Some species are top candidates for rewilding because they provide exceptional ecosystem service value. However, uncertainty remains regarding historical information of some species and subsequent management between international lines can be inconsistent. The North American Elk (C. canadensis canadensis and C. c. merriami) in Mexico is a complicated example. There are three distinct topics to tackle here: 1) Were any subspecies of Elk truly native to Mexico, and across what range, in recent history? 2) Should they continue to be managed as an “Exotic” species today in Mexico? 3) Regardless of management opinions, how will their presence impact rewilding efforts in northern Mexico and the southwest US? I used historical surveys, archeological and fossil data in combination with ecological niche models to address these questions. The description of Merriam’s Elk unintentionally complicated management of the species in Mexico. Elk likely occurred in the Sierra Madre Ranges in Mexico, yet their “Exotic” status impacts North American wildlife management progress. Elk should be managed as a native game species in zones of natural occurrence in Mexico, via the same reasoning as Arizona and New Mexico wildlife departments in the United States. They may be a valuable prey base for endangered carnivores like Mexican Wolves and could restore key ecological functions. Elk also provide irreplaceable resources for local and indigenous people. Mexico still retains vast intact wilderness tracts and Elk could play an important role in continued wildlife restoration efforts between international borders.
Evaluating Genetic Variability of Elk in Eastern Tennessee
Eryn M. Watson; Katherine A. Kurth; Dailee L. Metts; Brittany L. Slabach; John T. Hast; John J. Cox; Bradley F. Miller; Richard W. Gerhold; Lisa I. Muller
Successful reintroduction of elk (Cervus canadensis) has led to the establishment of a population within their historic range in Tennessee, located near Kentucky’s elk herd. Prior research using microsatellite analysis of a reintroduced population to North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area (NCWMA) in Pioneer, Tennessee indicated the persistence of genetic structure from two distinct lineages. Elk were originally translocated from two isolated, high-fenced populations from the north and south regions of Elk Island National Park (EINP) in Alberta, Canada. We assessed genetic structure and spatial distribution of the current NCWMA population 20 years after the original release through analysis of 16 microsatellite markers for individual identification. We used DNA extracted from hair of captured and collared individuals (n=17) and extracted from fecal sampling (n=375) across 79,318 ha. All hair samples and 157 fecal samples were successfully genotyped by Wildlife Genetics Inc. (Nelson, British Columbia, Canada). Results identified 96 individuals. A Bayesian clustering analysis (Program STRUCTURE) was used to delineate genetic group membership with a probability of >0.8 to one of three lineages and some admixture of populations using only genetic data without elk locations. Fecal samples included 84 individuals with genetic assignment to EINP north lineage (n=15), EINP south lineage (n=55), an admixture of the EINP lineages (n=12), and Kentucky lineage (n=2). Hair samples from collared elk were assigned to EINP south lineage (n= 11) and EINP north lineage (n=6). The GPS locations show limited spatial segregation of individuals by group, despite the capability to interact and commingle. Our results indicate the continuance of the two original EINP populations of elk at NCWMA and the inclusion of EINP admixture and Kentucky lineages. Monitoring genetic structure of the elk population at NCWMA should be continually evaluated for potential genetic effects that may impact population health, demography, and future management options.
Distribution and Etiologic Investigation of An Emergent Hoof Disease of Elk in the Pacific West
Margaret A. Wild; Devendra Shah; Kyle Taylor; Venkata Vinay Bandarupalli
Recent surveillance has identified expansion of an emergent hoof disease in elk (Cervus elaphus) to a geographic range in multiple jurisdictions in the Pacific West. The disease was initially investigated in 2008-2009 following a marked increase in limping elk observed in Southwest Washington. Characteristic lesions, including ulceration of the interdigital space, undermining of the heel bulb, and breakage or sloughing of the hoof capsule, cause lameness and debilitation that threaten the health, welfare, and sustainability of elk populations. Spirochetes are routinely observed within areas of eroded epithelium with marked suppurative inflammation on histologic examination. In previous studies, Treponema spp. similar to those reported in digital dermatitis of cattle and sheep were isolated sporadically from lesions, and the presence of treponemes in tissues was supported by immunohistochemistry and PCR. Thus, the disease is currently diagnosed as treponeme-associated hoof disease (TAHD). While treponeme-associated, additional investigation is warranted to determine the suite of organisms that might contribute to etiology. Digital dermatitis in livestock is generally considered to be a polybacterial disease. We hypothesize a similar process may occur in elk. In a pilot study, we compared the bacterial (16S rRNA) metagenomes in biopsies collected postmortem from healthy (n=4) and diseased (n=4) elk feet. The bacterial diversity was reduced in the diseased state when compared to control samples. Results supported treponeme association; Spirochetes (Treponema spp.), as well as Tenericutes (Mycoplasma spp.) and Fusobacteria (Fusobacterium spp.), were the most predominant bacteria Phyla associated with lesions. Ongoing studies are evaluating samples collected across the known geographic range in locations distant to the area of initial disease detection. Findings are critical for epidemiological investigation, developing a disease challenge model, and identifying potentially effective mitigation actions.
Effects of Fire on Diet Composition, Foraging Behavior and Nutritional Status of Moose in Southcentral and Interior Alaska
Katie L. Anderson
Controlled fires are a widely used technique to increase forage availability for herbivores such as bison (Bison bison), mule deer (Odocoileus heminonus) and bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis). For grazing species wildfires have been shown to increase forage availability and therefore increase population sizes, but the interaction between wildfire and the nutritional quality of the plants has yet to be understood, especially for browse species that are relied upon by moose (Alces alces). We chose to examine the Porcupine fire on the Taylor Highway, the Hajdukovich fire near Delta Junction, the Alphabet Hills Fire in the Nelchina Basin, and a mechanically cleared site (Sourdough), 56 km North of Glenallen, AK. Yearling moose provided diet composition and foraging behavior data that was paired with habitat quality measures including total canopy cover and relative frequency and size of available bite within both burned/disturbed and adjacent undisturbed climax forest habitats, along with the nutritional quality of the available browse and forbs consumed by the moose. We conducted foraging trials and collected samples of all browses/foods in each area in June and August 2019 in order to determine the seasonal variation in nutritional quality as well as the difference in quality between the burned/disturbed area and the forested area. We found that effects of disturbance were highly dependent on the study location. We found that in response to the decreased quality of the forages in August, the yearling moose shifted their foraging behavior and selection to compensate. This work shows that although sometimes positive, the effects of wildfire are not always consistent for moose habitat, serious considerations of the pre-fire community, fire characteristics, and post-fire environmental stresses are required to fully understand the effect of disturbance on the availability and nutritional quality of browse for moose.
Moose Stress and Nutrition Dynamics Related to Landscape Characteristics and Climate-Mediated Factors
Elias Rosenblatt; Dr. James Murdoch; Jacob Debow; Joshua Blouin; Dr. Therese Donovan; Will Rogers; Dr. Scott Creel
Moose (Alces alces americana) populations in the northeastern United States have declined substantially over the past 15 years, primarily due to the impacts of winter ticks (Dermacentor albipictus). Research efforts have focused on the effects of winter tick infestation on moose survival and reproduction, but stress and nutritional responses to ticks and other potential stressors remain understudied. Prolonged elevation of glucocorticoid concentrations (commonly referred to as stress hormones) can result in the suppression of reproduction, growth, immune function, and responses to pathogens and parasites. Changes in nutrition have been linked to the toll of winter tick and increased mortality rates in moose calves, yet other environmental factors may play a role in nutritional condition. We examined the influence of several environmental factors on stress hormone and nutrition dynamics in a high density moose population in Vermont, USA. We used repeated non-invasive fecal and snow urine sampling of 85 radio-collared moose calves from 2017 to 2019 to quantify fecal glucocorticoid metabolites (fGCM) and urea nitrogen:creatinine ratios (UN:C). With 405 paired fecal and urine samples from known individuals, we used generalized mixed models to evaluate the influence of winter tick, habitat, climate, and human development variables on stress and nutrition in calf moose. Calf fGCM levels were elevated in periods of adult winter tick engorgement and increased snow depth. Nutritional condition (UN:C) deteriorated in calves that were smaller and bearing heavier tick loads in early winter. Our results provide novel evidence linking stress and nutrition to a problematic parasite, while accounting for other individual and environmental variables. Our findings also support the development of non-invasive endocrinological and nutritional monitoring for assessing environmental and anthropogenic impacts on moose. Future studies will identify population-level implications of elevated stress by exploring the relationship between stress, nutrition, and measures of fitness.


Contributed Oral Presentations
Location: Virtual Date: Time: -