Research Article: Seasonal home ranges and habitat selection of three elk (Cervus elaphus) herds in North Dakota

Date Published: February 4, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Jacqueline M. Amor, Robert Newman, William F. Jensen, Bradley C. Rundquist, W. David Walter, Jason R. Boulanger, Floyd W. Weckerly.


Changes in land use have resulted in range shifts of many wildlife species, including those entering novel environments, resulting in the critical need to understand their spatial ecology to inform ecosystem effects and management decisions. Dispersing elk (Cervus elaphus) were colonizing areas of suitable habitat in the Northern Great Plains, USA, resulting in crop depredation complaints in these areas. Although state resource managers had little information on these elk herds, limited evidence suggested temporal movements into Canada. We collected and analyzed essential information on home range and habitat selection for 3 elk herds residing in North Dakota. We captured 5 adult female elk in each study area, affixed global positioning system collars, and monitored them for 1 year (2016–2017). We estimated diel period, seasonal, and hunting season home ranges using Brownian Bridge Movement Models for each individual. We analyzed habitat selection using multinomial logit models to test for differences in use of land classes, and for departures from proportionate use based on random sampling; our predictor variables included individual elk, diel period, and season. Home ranges differed between the 3 herds, seasons, and diel period; gun and winter season home ranges were both larger than in summer, as was night when compared with day. Female elk generally restricted themselves to cover during the day and entered open areas at night and during winter months. Our results also suggest that elk in our study areas tended to seek more cover, and in the case of our Turtle Mountain study area, some cross into Canada during gun season. Our study provides a better understanding of the spatial ecology of elk in the Northern Great Plains while highlighting the need for enhanced international cooperative management efforts.

Partial Text

Elk (Cervus elephus) were extirpated from most of their range [1][2][3], including North Dakota, near the end of the 19th century [4]. Since then, elk have been reintroduced into historical locations and have expanded their range [5]. Their reintroduction and dispersal from historical range has led to recolonization of areas with suitable habitat [6], and today, elk are again among the most widely distributed member of Cervidae in North America [7]. In some areas, elk are overabundant, which can lead to human-wildlife conflicts such as property damage, crop depredation, car collisions, and disease transmission, which may result in lower landowner tolerance, especially from growers experiencing crop depredation [8][9][10][11].

Our results provide a novel contribution to the spatial ecology of elk herds in varying landscapes within the Northern Great Plains. We found differences in size of home range based on season, diel period, and herd among female elk. Porcupine Hills is predominantly mixed and shortgrass prairie, possibly forcing elk to travel farther from forest cover to find adequate forage. In contrast, Turtle Mountain is heavily forested and intermixed with cropland, potentially reducing the necessary travel distance from security cover [21]. Vegetation and landscape differences [2] between our study areas may explain differences in size of home range among all 3 elk herds [57][58]. Home range size increased during winter and at night. During winter, reduced habitat quality due to snow and cold temperatures may have forced elk to travel farther to seek adequate forage and cover [21]. We expected our study elk to display larger home ranges at night, given elk are known to rest and forage in cover throughout the day and forage in more open areas at night [59]. This was corroborated by our habitat selection analysis which show that female elk were generally spending more time in forest cover during daylight hours and entered open areas at night. There were no differences in home range between summer and calving and archery seasons and size of home range was consistently smaller during these three seasons when compared to gun and winter seasons. These differences are likely due to behaviors related to calving, calf presence, abundance of high quality forage, and harem formation by males for breeding for calving, summer, and archery seasons, respectively.

This is the first study to report on three distinct elk subpopulations in the Northern Great Plains and the variability exhibited by these subpopulations in relation to home range and seasonal resource selection. Size of home range and habitat selection for each elk herd was influenced by season and diel period regardless of the distinct habitat compositions each subpopulation occupied. Resource selection during elk and deer gun hunting season allows resource managers to recognize how elk react to and are influenced by hunter pressure regardless of habitat composition. Since 2 of these elk populations border Canada, future studies may benefit from exploring the ecology of elk on both sides of the international border. Our study will also allow resource managers to better focus management efforts on areas more likely to be used by elk. For example, elk in this region may be restricted to small pockets of forested habitat common in riparian corridors in the Great Plains. How these fragmented landscapes affect elk viability is unknown but may be problematic for elk managers given that much of the surface area in these areas is privately owned. Limitations of sparse forest combined with private land ownership may confound efforts by natural resource agencies to manage elk herds in similar areas if not interconnected with other elk herds.




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