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Density Dependence, Compensation, and Environmental Effects on Elk Calf Mortality in Yellowstone National Park

Francis J. Singer, Albert Harting, Kate K. Symonds and Michael B. Coughenour
The Journal of Wildlife Management
Vol. 61, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), pp. 12-25
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Wildlife Society
DOI: 10.2307/3802410
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3802410
Page Count: 14
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Density Dependence, Compensation, and Environmental Effects on Elk Calf Mortality in Yellowstone National Park
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Abstract

We studied survival of radiocollared elk (Cervus elaphus) calves in Yellowstone National Park from 1987 to 1990, and survival of calves computed from population estimates from 1968 to 1992. We hypothesized that summer and winter survival of elk calves and mass of neonates were inversely related to population size, measures of environmental severity, and timing of births. Herd-wide survival estimates based on winter counts, reported harvests, and herd classifications, suggested that winter survival of elk calves was related inversely to estimated size of the elk population during winter (P = 0.0002), but we found no correlation with an index of winter severity (P = 0.51). Summer survival of elk calves also was correlated inversely with the estimated size of the elk population the previous winter (P = 0.03). Summer survival of radiocollared calves averaged 0.65 (n = 127 marked calves) from 1987 to 1990, the losses mostly due to predation (22%). Winter survival of calves averaged 0.72 (n = 88 marked calves entered the winter period), with losses due mostly to malnutrition (58%). Summer survival of radiocollared calves was positively correlated with estimated birth weight (P = 0.001). Survival of radiocollared calves during winters 1987-90 was correlated positively with early calving and mildness of the winter (in contrast to herd-wide survival estimates), and was inversely correlated with estimated elk population size that winter (P = 0.006). Winter survival of radiocollared calves was lower during 1988-89 following the drought and large fires than the other 3 winters (P < 0.001). Predation on elk calves during summer doubled after the drought and fires of 1988 (13% calf losses to predation before the fires vs. 29% after the fires). Potential compensation existed between components of calf mortality: predators killed more light (P = 0.041) and more late born calves (P = 0.146); calves were born later and lighter (P = 0.048) following severe weather conditions; and heavier born calves survived at a higher rate (P = 0.006). Our results are consistent with the hypothesis that density-dependent mortality of calves during winter due to malnutrition, and summer mortality of calves due to predation were partially compensatory but severe environmental conditions produced largely additive components to both summer (increased predation) and winter (increased malnutrition) mortality.

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