While many wildlife species are threatened, some populations have recovered from previous overexploitation, and data linking these population increases with disease dynamics are limited. We present data suggesting that free-ranging elk (Cervus elaphus) are a maintenance host for Brucella abortus in new areas of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). Brucellosis seroprevalence in free-ranging elk increased from 0-7% in 1991-1992 to 8-20% in 2006-2007 in four of six herd units around the GYE. These levels of brucellosis are comparable to some herd units where elk are artificially aggregated on supplemental feeding grounds. There are several possible mechanisms for this increase that we evaluated using statistical and population modeling approaches. Simulations of an age-structured population model suggest that the observed levels of seroprevalence are unlikely to be sustained by dispersal from supplemental feeding areas with relatively high seroprevalence or an older age structure. Increases in brucellosis seroprevalence and the total elk population size in areas with feeding grounds have not been statistically detectable. Meanwhile, the rate of seroprevalence increase outside the feeding grounds was related to the population size and density of each herd unit. Therefore, the data suggest that enhanced elk-to-elk transmission in free-ranging populations may be occurring due to larger winter elk aggregations. Elk populations inside and outside of the GYE that traditionally did not maintain brucellosis may now be at risk due to recent population increases. In particular, some neighboring populations of Montana elk were 5-9 times larger in 2007 than in the 1970s, with some aggregations comparable to the Wyoming feeding-ground populations. Addressing the unintended consequences of these increasing populations is complicated by limited hunter access to private lands, which places many ungulate populations out of administrative control. Agency-landowner hunting access partnerships and the protection of large predators are two management strategies that may be used to target high ungulate densities in private refuges and reduce the current and future burden of disease. ?? 2010 by the Ecological Society of America.
Additional publication details
Probable causes of increasing brucellosis in free-ranging elk of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem