Neonatal mortality of elk driven by climate, predator phenology and predator community composition

Kathleen A. Griffin, Mark Hebblewhite, Hugh S. Robinson, Peter Zager, Shannon M. Barber-Meyer, David Christianson, Scott Creel, Nyeema C. Harris, Mark A. Hurley, Dewaine H. Jackson, Bruce K. Johnson, Woodrow L. Myers, Jarod D. Raithel, Mike Schlegel, Bruce L. Smith, Craig White, P. J. White

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

131 Scopus citations


1.Understanding the interaction among predators and between predation and climate is critical to understanding the mechanisms for compensatory mortality. We used data from 1999 radio-marked neonatal elk (Cervus elaphus) calves from 12 populations in the north-western United States to test for effects of predation on neonatal survival, and whether predation interacted with climate to render mortality compensatory. 2.Weibull survival models with a random effect for each population were fit as a function of the number of predator species in a community (3-5), seven indices of climatic variability, sex, birth date, birth weight, and all interactions between climate and predators. Cumulative incidence functions (CIF) were used to test whether the effects of individual species of predators were additive or compensatory. 3.Neonatal elk survival to 3months declined following hotter previous summers and increased with higher May precipitation, especially in areas with wolves and/or grizzly bears. Mortality hazards were significantly lower in systems with only coyotes (Canis latrans), cougars (Puma concolor) and black bears (Ursus americanus) compared to higher mortality hazards experienced with gray wolves (Canis lupus) and grizzly bears (Ursus horribilis). 4.In systems with wolves and grizzly bears, mortality by cougars decreased, and predation by bears was the dominant cause of neonatal mortality. Only bear predation appeared additive and occurred earlier than other predators, which may render later mortality by other predators compensatory as calves age. Wolf predation was low and most likely a compensatory source of mortality for neonatal elk calves. 5.Functional redundancy and interspecific competition among predators may combine with the effects of climate on vulnerability to predation to drive compensatory mortality of neonatal elk calves. The exception was the evidence for additive bear predation. These results suggest that effects of predation by recovering wolves on neonatal elk survival, a contentious issue for management of elk populations, may be less important than the composition of the predator community. Future studies would benefit by synthesizing overwinter calf and adult-survival data sets, ideally from experimental studies, to test the roles of predation in annual compensatory and additive mortality of elk.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1246-1257
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2011


  • Compensatory mortality
  • Competing risks
  • Interspecific competition
  • Juvenile survival
  • Yellowstone National Park


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