Overabundant elk (Cervus elaphus) populations have become a significant problem in many areas of North America. This is particularly true for protected areas where high densities of elk can cause long-term ecological degradation. When lethal control is not acceptable in these environments, resource managers must often consider alternative methods for reducing the size of resident elk populations. A potential management alternative is controlling the fertility of female elk. A promising new approach to wildlife contraception involves the use of biodegradable implants containing the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonist leuprolide. During fall 2002–spring 2004, we compared pregnancy rates, reproductive behavior, daily activity patterns, and body condition of 17 free-ranging female elk treated with a leuprolide formulation with 17 untreated females, in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA. After treatment, the pregnancy rate of treated elk was 0%, whereas 79% of control elk became pregnant. The effects of treatment were reversed the subsequent year with the pregnancy rate of treated females 100% compared with 91% for controls. Reproductive behaviors were similar for treated and control elk during the breeding and postbreeding seasons; treated elk did not exhibit postrut reproductive behaviors. Moreover, we found no differences in daily activity patterns of experimental groups during the breeding or postbreeding seasons. Treated elk did not show improved body condition over pregnant females. Instead, treated females catabolized proportionately more body fat during winter after treatment and at a higher rate than pregnant control elk. However, this effect was reversed the next spring with no difference in body fat between treated and control elk. We conclude from this experiment that leuprolide, administered as a controlled release formulation, offers a safe and effective method of controlling fertility in free-ranging female elk. However, practical application is limited by treatment duration and the need to treat females before the breeding season.
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Vol. 71 • No. 7