Recent research demonstrated the utility of fecal progestagens (P4) for detecting pregnancy in elk (Cervus elaphus) during mid- to late gestation. Several factors, however, may influence fecal P4 excretion and limit its use in free-ranging animals. We investigated the effects of nutrition and body condition (percent ingesta-free body fat) on fecal P4 concentrations and incidence of abortion. During mid-gestation (late December 1997 through early March 1998), 40 gravid cow elk varying in body condition were placed on three diets (high, medium, and low) in which the amount of food offered varied. Feces were collected periodically and analyzed for P4 via radioimmunoassay. We found no significant effect of dietary treatment on P4 concentrations, but as body condition declined, P4 concentrations declined significantly. This decline did not impede the ability to detect pregnancy based on previously reported criteria, even for elk in such poor condition that they aborted. However, fecal P4 concentrations in 10% (4/39) of samples collected from 13 non-pregnant animals maintained on a high plane of nutrition were false-positive for pregnancy. We suggest alternate criteria for determining pregnancy in elk using fecal P4 values: ≥1.25 mg/g feces as pregnant, ≤1.0 μg/g feces as non-pregnant, and 1.0–1.25 μg/g feces as inconclusive. Finally, two cows that aborted did not abort until weeks after being classified as emaciated and near death, suggesting that nutrition-associated abortion in elk may not occur during mid-gestation except under extremely harsh conditions.
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Vol. 38 • No. 3