Nutritional condition and physiological stress levels of elk in the black hills, South Dakota

Chadwick P. Lehman, Christopher T. Rota, Joshua J. Millspaugh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Percent of body fat and physiological stress are important correlates to wildlife demographics. We studied winter percent of body fat and physiological stress levels for a declining elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni) population in South Dakota, 2011-2013. We obtained percent of winter body fat, pregnancy status, lactation status, and physiological stress data from 58 adult females (2+ years old). We compared physiological stress level data from 2011 with data collected from this same herd when elk densities were much higher (1995-1997). Our objectives were to determine percent of body fat during winter, examine if winter body fat was correlated with pregnancy and lactation status, and quantify and compare physiological stress hormone values from elk in the mid-1990s. Probability of being pregnant increased with higher winter nutritional condition, or percent of body fat; whereas females with a higher probability of previously lactating were lower in winter body fat. Mean fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) levels in 2011 (mean = 47.78 ng/g, SE = 2.37) were higher during summer compared to data collected in 1995-1997 (mean = 34.21 ng/g, SE = 3.71); however, mean FGM levels during winter did not differ between the two time periods. Although summer levels of FGM have significantly increased since the mid-1990s, we caution against any interpretation of increased FGM levels on elk fitness, as it may not infer biological significance. Mean winter percent of body fat of elk was lower when compared to other populations in the west but this difference does not appear to be limiting vital rates and population growth for this elk herd. We recommend future research focus on summer/autumn data collection to provide a more comprehensive understanding of percent of body fat for elk in our region.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere7185
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2019


  • Black Hills
  • Cervus canadensis nelsoni
  • Elk
  • Fecal glucocorticoid metabolite
  • Lactation
  • Nutritional condition
  • Physiological stress
  • Pregnancy


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