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What attracts elk onto cattle pasture? Implications for inter-species disease transmission

Pruvot, M., Seidel, D., Boyce, M.S., Musiani, M., Massolo, A., Kutz, S., Orsel, K.
Preventive veterinary medicine 2014 v.117 no.2 pp. 326-339
Cervus elaphus, beef cattle, cluster analysis, collars, disease transmission, elks, environmental factors, foraging, forests, global positioning systems, habitat preferences, habitats, hay, herds, interviews, landscapes, models, normalized difference vegetation index, pasture management, pastures, pathogens, ranchers, range management, risk assessment, risk reduction, spatial data, telemetry, Alberta
In Southwest Alberta, beef cattle and wild elk (Cervus elaphus) have similar habitat preferences. Understanding their inter-species contact structure is important for assessing the risk of pathogen transmission between them. These spatio-temporal patterns of interactions are shaped, in part, by range management and environmental factors affecting elk distribution. In this study, resource selection modeling was used to identify factors influencing elk presence on cattle pasture and elk selection of foraging patches; furthermore, consequences for inter-species disease transmission were discussed.Data on pasture management practices and observations of elk were collected from 15 ranchers during interviews. Pasture use by elk was defined based on telemetry data (from GPS collars deployed on 168 elk in 7 herds) and rancher observations. At the patch scale, foraging patches used by elk were identified by spatio-temporal cluster analysis of telemetry data, whereas available patches were randomly generated outside the area delimited by used patches. For pastures and patches, landscape and human-managed features were characterized using remote sensing data and interviews, respectively. Attributes of available and used pastures (or patches) were compared using resource selection functions, on annual and seasonal (or annual and monthly) time scales. Additionally, intensity of pasture use was modeled using negative binomial regression.Cultivated hay land and mineral supplements were associated with elk presence on cattle pastures, whereas pastures with manure fertilization and higher traffic-weighted road densities were less likely to be used by elk. The effects of landscape (elevation, aspect, water access) and vegetation (forest cover, Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) characteristics on patch selection were consistent with typical elk habitat requirements. The presence of cattle and the traffic-weighted road density were negatively associated with patch selection. The apparent avoidance of cattle by elk reduced the risk of direct transmission of pathogens, except during winter months. However, human-managed features attracting elk to cattle pastures (e.g. hay land and mineral supplements) may increase inter-species pathogen transmission through indirect contacts.