Human activities and weather drive contact rates of wintering elk

Journal of Applied Ecology
By: , and 

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Abstract

  1. Wildlife aggregation patterns can influence disease transmission. However, limited research evaluates the influence of anthropogenic and natural factors on aggregation. Many managers would like to reduce wildlife contact rates, driven by aggregation, to limit disease transmission. We develop a novel analytical framework to quantify how management activities such as supplemental feeding and hunting versus weather drive contact rates while accounting for correlated contacts. We apply the framework to the National Elk Refuge (NER), Wyoming, USA, where the probable arrival of chronic wasting disease (CWD) has magnified concerns.
  2. We used a daily proximity index to measure contact rates among 68 global positioning system collared elk from 2016 to 2019. We modelled contact rates as a function of abiotic weather‐related effects, anthropogenic effects and aggregation from the prior day. The winter of 2017–2018 had greater natural forage availability and little snow, which led to a rare non‐feeding year on the NER and provided a unique opportunity to evaluate the effect of feeding on contact rates relative to other conditions.
  3. Supplemental feeding was the strongest predictor of aggregation, and contact rates were 2.6 times larger while feeding occurred compared to the baseline rate (0.34 and 0.13, respectively). Snow‐covered area was the second strongest predictor of contact rates highlighting the importance of abiotic factors to elk aggregation, but this effect had half the strength of feeding. These results are the first to show, even in animals that congregate naturally, how greatly supplemental feeding amplifies aggregation. Contact rates were also 23% lower during times when elk hunting was active (0.10) compared to the baseline.
  4. Synthesis and applications. Supplemental feeding increased contacts between elk well above the natural effects of weather, even after accounting for correlated movement expected in wintering ungulates. Similarly, differences in hunting season timing with adjacent areas led to an increase in contacts, suggesting an additional management option for reducing aggregation. The analytical framework presented supports the evaluation of temporally varying management actions that influence aggregation broadly and can be easily implemented whether the interest in changing aggregation is related to reduction of disease transmission, human–wildlife conflict or inter‐species competition.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Human activities and weather drive contact rates of wintering elk
Series title Journal of Applied Ecology
DOI 10.1111/1365-2664.13818
Volume 58
Issue 3
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher British Ecological Society
Contributing office(s) Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center
Description 10 p.
First page 667
Last page 676
Country United States
State Wyoming
Other Geospatial National Elk Refuge
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