Author ORCID Identifier

https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7157-1703

Year of Publication

2019

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Agriculture, Food and Environment

Department

Animal and Food Sciences

First Advisor

Dr. John J. Cox

Second Advisor

Dr. Michael J. Lacki

Abstract

Globally, male ungulate species are heavily managed for their sporting and trophy qualities. North American elk (Cervus canadensis) are typically managed using a male-biased harvest regime, placing increased chances of mortality on males in these hunted populations. To manage for trophy quality animals that typically represent older age classes, wildlife managers have implemented many age-biased harvest regulations, including spike-only tags and antler point restrictions. Many of these age-biased harvest regulations have fallen short of their desired goal of producing older bull elk. Consequently, the consensus has evolved to center on an overall reduction in harvest pressure.

The state of Kentucky began an elk restoration project in 1997, with 1,553 elk released through 2002. As with other modern elk restoration projects, the male demographic received little research attention in the years immediately post restoration. The difficult logistics surrounding the transport of adult male elk and the reluctance of source states to part with potential trophy animals, led to few adult male elk receiving tracking collars to monitor this demographic. Hunter success rates indicated a growing male component to this population in light of the lack of a radio-marked cohort. With overall population numbers increasing in step with predictive models, so too did hunting tag numbers and hunting pressure. This rise in hunting pressure likely forced elk to become more cryptic, giving rise to the perception of a decline in the elk population, especially older age class male elk. This research represents the first in-depth look at the survival rates and habitat selection of adult male elk in Kentucky.

Recent improvements in field methodology have allowed for the more efficient acquisition of a robust sample of adult male elk. I conducted a radio-telemetry study of adult male elk within southeast Kentucky to investigate the following: (1) survival and cause-specific mortality factors, (2) survival during the fall hunting period, (3) changes in survival following the implementation of a limited entry area (LEA) enclosing our study area, and (4) the associations of morphometric characteristics with the survival of adult male elk. Given the lack of information on the habitat use of male elk, a cohort of global positioning system (GPS) equipped elk were captured to investigate: (1) seasonal habitat use of male elk, (2) quantification of availability of male elk in readily viewable habitats, (3) changes to the percent of open land within the fall home range of adult male elk, and (4) the influence of open land on survival rates. To investigate the dispersal of male elk, I compared genetic relatedness to space use. Finally, in an attempt to better understand our existing capture methodologies, I analyzed drug induction and reversal metrics for the immobilization drug Carfentanil citrate.

Survival analysis resulted in a 16.9% (CI = 12.2 – 23.7) three-year survival rate for adult male elk. An improvement in survival rate (p = 0.077) was noted after the implementation of an LEA system that limited the number of hunters in the study area. No morphometric characteristics were observed to have an association with survival, indicating that hunters indiscriminately harvest male elk. Predictive, habitat use models for male elk indicated a preference for grass habitats and use of habitats near grass patches. Seasonal variation in habitat use was observed with the greatest daily use of grass habitats occurring in the winter season. Adult male elk selected for open land at greater rates than is available across the study area. Over the course of three hunting seasons, elk were found to reduce their use of open land during daylight hours, and we anecdotally believe this to be a response to hunting pressure. A reduction in survival probability of male elk was directly related to use of open land in the final year of the project. Little home range overlap was observed between related male elk, indicating some level of dispersal and intra-specific competition. Predictive models for Carfentanil immobilization indicated an increase in efficacy of a shoulder injection as opposed to a hindquarter drug injection.

Future management of elk in Kentucky should center on promoting the persistence of healthy grassland areas within the elk restoration zone and meeting hunter expectations. Hunter expectations should be gathered and management tailored to meet their desires and the objectives of the management agency. This research indicates that hunters harvest male elk regardless of trophy characteristics, yet we are not sure of the underlying reasons. The interaction of habitat and survival is complex and further complicated by the reclaimed coal mines that Kentucky elk live upon. Habitat management priorities should focus on a heterogeneous, yet healthy habitat that meets the needs of all species residing on these once-exploited lands.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

https://doi.org/10.13023/etd.2019.460

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