Effects of elk density on elk aggregation patterns and exposure to brucellosis

Kelly M. Proffitt, Neil Anderson, Paul Lukacs, Margaret M. Riordan, Justin A. Gude, Julee Shamhart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations

Abstract

Increasing elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) populations across the West in response to increased demand for recreational and hunting opportunities may have negative, unintended consequences for disease transmission risk. Historically, free-ranging elk populations were not thought to sustain brucellosis (Brucella abortus), but recent studies suggest increasing elk densities may result in free-ranging elk serving as maintenance hosts for the disease. We evaluated spatial variation in elk density, group sizes, and adult female brucellosis seroprevalence in 39 elk management districts in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem using a Bayesian approach. We used modeled relationships to estimate the effects of reducing elk density by 10-90% on grouping patterns and seroprevalence rates. Reducing the density of the 3 highest density elk herds by 10%, 50%, and 90% was predicted to result in a 9%, 39%, and 59% decrease in mean group size, whereas reducing the density of the 3 lowest density elk herds was predicted to result in only a 0%, 0.7%, and 1.3% decrease in mean group size. We estimated seroprevalence rates of 0.01-0.27 across management districts, and seroprevalence increased as elk density increased. For the 7 of 39 management districts with >10% estimated seroprevalence, 10%, 50%, and 90% reductions in elk density resulted in predicted mean seroprevalence reductions of 2%, 7%, and 9%, respectively. For the 14 management districts with ≤1% estimated seroprevalence, 10%, 50%, and 90% reductions in elk density resulted in no measurable change in predicted mean seroprevalence. Our results suggest that elk density has an important effect on elk group sizes, which may influence the risk of brucellosis transmission and resultant exposure rates. Manipulating elk density may in turn affect brucellosis seroprevalence rates. However, debate among the diverse stakeholders involved in elk management on the effectiveness of reducing density, group sizes, and brucellosis exposure rates in elk, relative to other interests and objectives, is necessary prior to manipulation of elk density for this purpose.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)373-383
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Wildlife Management
Volume79
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Apr 1 2015

Keywords

  • Bayesian
  • Brucella abortus
  • Montana
  • brucellosis
  • density
  • elk management
  • wolf risk

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