Habitat modifications and supplemental feeding artificially aggregate some wildlife populations, with potential impacts upon contact and parasite transmission rates. Less well recognized, however, is how increased aggregation may affect wildlife physiology. Crowding has been shown to induce stress responses, and increased glucocorticoid (GC) concentrations can reduce immune function and increase disease susceptibility. We investigated the effects of supplemental feeding and the aggregation that it induces on behavior and fecal glucocorticoid metabolite concentrations (fGCM) in elk (Cervus elaphus) using observational and experimental approaches. We first compared fGCM levels of elk on supplemental feedgrounds to neighboring elk populations wintering in native habitats using data from 2003 to 2008. We then experimentally manipulated the distribution of supplemental food on feedgrounds to investigate whether more widely distributed food would result in lower rates of aggression and stress hormone levels. Contrary to some expectations that fed elk may be less stressed than unfed elk during the winter, we found that elk on feedgrounds had fecal GC levels at least 31% higher than non-feedground populations. Within feedgrounds, fGCM levels were strongly correlated with local measures of elk density (r2 = 0.81). Dispersing feed more broadly, however, did not have a detectable effect on fGCM levels or aggression rates. Our results suggest that increases in aggregation associated with winter feedgrounds affects elk physiology, and the resulting increases in fGCM levels are not likely to be mitigated by management efforts that distribute the feed more widely. Additional research is needed to assess whether these increases in fGCMs directly alter parasite transmission and disease dynamics.
Additional publication details
Effects of supplemental feeding and aggregation on fecal glucocorticoid metabolite concentrations in elk