Variations in elk aggregation patterns across a range of elk population sizes at Wall Creek, Montana


  • Associate Editor: Graham Hall


In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, growing concern over increasing rates of brucellosis seroprevalence in wildlife has challenged wildlife managers to develop strategies for minimizing the potential for pathogen exchange within and between wildlife populations. Recent evidence suggests that increases in elk seroprevalence may be associated with increasing elk densities and/or increasing size of elk aggregations. However, the interactions between elk population density, landscape factors, and elk aggregation patterns are not well-understood, making appropriate management responses challenging. Using a unique, long-term elk aggregation dataset collected across a wide range of elk population sizes, we investigated relationships between elk population size, landscape factors, and elk aggregation responses (group size and group density) with goals of clarifying how changes in elk population size may affect elk aggregation patterns. Overall, landscape attributes and weather had a stronger influence on elk aggregation patterns than factors such as elk population size that are within management control. We found little evidence that elk population size affected mean elk group sizes, but we did find evidence that the size and density of the largest elk aggregations increased as elk population size increased. We also found some evidence that group densities increased following the establishment of wolves. However, across the relatively wide range of elk population sizes observed in this study, only modest changes in elk group density were observed, suggesting that dramatic reductions in population sizes would be necessary to produce measureable reductions in elk group density to affect frequency-dependent transmission. Management actions designed to lower disease transmission are likely to negatively affect other objectives related to elk management and conservation. We therefore suggest that a first step in managing disease transmission risk is agreement among stakeholders interested in elk management of all objectives related to elk management, including acknowledgment that disease transmission is undesirable. © 2011 The Wildlife Society.