We tested the hypothesis that elk in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) were at ecological carrying capacity by determining herd-specific levels of nutritional condition and fecundity. Ingesta-free body fat levels in adult cows that were lactating were 10.6% (s = 1.7; range = 6.2-15.4) and 7.7% (s = 0.5; range = 5.9-10.1) in November 2001 for the Horseshoe and Moraine Park herds, respectively. Cows that were not lactating were able to accrue significantly more body fat: 14.0% (s = 1.1; range = 7.7-19.3) and 11.5% (s = 0.8; range = 8.6-15.1) for the Horseshoe and Moraine Park herds, respectively. Cow elk lost most of their body fat over winter (April 2002 levels were 3.9% [s = 0.4] and 2.9% [s = 0.4] for the Horseshoe and Moraine Park herds, respectively). Nutritional condition indicated that both Horseshoe Park and Moraine Park elk were well below condition levels elk can achieve on very good-excellent nutrition (i.e., >15% body fat; Cook et al. 2004) and were comparable to other free-ranging elk populations. However, condition levels were higher than those expected at a "food-limited" carrying capacity, and a proportion of elk in each herd were able to achieve condition levels indicative of very good-excellent nutrition. Elk in RMNP are likely regulated and/or limited by a complex combination of density-independent (including significant heterogeneity in forage conditions across RMNP's landscape) and density-dependent processes, as condition levels contradict a simple density-dependent model of a population at ecological carrying capacity.
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Nutritional condition of elk in rocky mountain national park