The dynamics of newly established elk (Cervus elaphus) populations can provide insights about maximum sustainable rates of reproduction, survival, and increase. However, data used to estimate rates of increase typically have been limited to counts and rarely have included complementary estimates of vital rates. Complexities of population dynamics cannot be understood without considering population processes as well as population states. We estimated pregnancy rates, survival rates, age ratios, and sex ratios for reintroduced elk at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, USA; combined vital rates in a population projection model; and compared model projections with observed elk numbers and population ratios. Pregnancy rates in January (early in the second trimester of pregnancy) averaged 54.1% (SE = 5.4%) for subadults and 91.0% (SE = 1.7%) for adults, and 91.6% of pregnancies resulted in recruitment at 8 months. Annual survival rates of adult females averaged 0.96 (95% CI = 0.94–0.98) with hunting included and 0.99 (95% CI = 0.97–0.99) with hunting excluded from calculations. Our fitted model explained 99.8% of past variation in population estimates and represents a useful new tool for short-term management planning. Although we found no evidence of temporal variation in vital rates, variation in population composition caused substantial variation in projected rates of increase (λ = 1.20–1.36). Restoring documented hunter harvests and removals of elk by the National Park Service led to a potential rate of λ = 1.26. Greater rates of increase substantiated elsewhere were within the expected range of chance variation, given our model and estimates of vital rates. Rates of increase realized by small elk populations are too variable to support inferences about habitat quality or density dependence.
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Vol. 71 • No. 4