Because they do not require sacrificing animals, body condition scores (BCS), thickness of rump fat (MAXFAT), and other similar predictors of body fat have advanced estimating nutritional condition of ungulates and their use has proliferated in North America in the last decade. However, initial testing of these predictors was too limited to assess their reliability among diverse habitats, ecotypes, subspecies, and populations across the continent. With data collected from mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), elk (Cervus elaphus), and moose (Alces alces) during initial model development and data collected subsequently from free-ranging mule deer and elk herds across much of the western United States, we evaluated reliability across a broader range of conditions than were initially available. First, to more rigorously test reliability of the MAXFAT index, we evaluated its robustness across the 3 species, using an allometric scaling function to adjust for differences in animal size. We then evaluated MAXFAT, rump body condition score (rBCS), rLIVINDEX (an arithmetic combination of MAXFAT and rBCS), and our new allometrically scaled rump-fat thickness index using data from 815 free-ranging female Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk (C. e. roosevelti and C. e. nelsoni) from 19 populations encompassing 4 geographic regions and 250 free-ranging female mule deer from 7 populations and 2 regions. We tested for effects of subspecies, geographic region, and captive versus free-ranging existence. Rump-fat thickness, when scaled allometrically with body mass, was related to ingesta-free body fat over a 38–522-kg range of body mass (r2 = 0.87; P < 0.001), indicating the technique is remarkably robust among at least the 3 cervid species of our analysis. However, we found an underscoring bias with the rBCS for elk that had >12% body fat. This bias translated into a difference between subspecies, because Rocky Mountain elk tended to be fatter than Roosevelt elk in our sample. Effects of observer error with the rBCS also existed for mule deer with moderate to high levels of body fat, and deer body size significantly affected accuracy of the MAXFAT predictor. Our analyses confirm robustness of the rump-fat index for these 3 species but highlight the potential for bias due to differences in body size and to observer error with BCS scoring. We present alternative LIVINDEX equations where potential bias from rBCS and bias due to body size are eliminated or reduced. These modifications improve the accuracy of estimating body fat for projects intended to monitor nutritional status of herds or to evaluate nutrition's influence on population demographics.
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Vol. 74 • No. 4