Our objective was to examine effects of groups of mixed numbers and ages of male North American elk Cervus elaphus on the reproductive performance of females. We conducted research at the Starkey Experimental Forest and Range in northeastern Oregon, USA, during 1993-2000. Each spring in late March, we released 40 female elk, eight yearling (9-month old) male elk and 2-8 branch-antlered elk (i.e. ≥ 2 years of age during rut the following autumn) into a 622-ha fenced pasture. Elk were gathered during autumn and early winter, and were brought to winter feeding grounds where blood samples were drawn to determine pregnancy status. The following spring, females were released into an 80-ha pasture prior to parturition. We searched for and captured newborn calves and obtained ear-punch samples for genetic analysis. We used 18 microsatellite loci to establish paternity of each calf. We varied the ratio of mature males (i.e. ≥ 3 years old) to female ratio from 0.03 to 0.21. As expected, mature males (older and heavier) were more successful in siring calves than were younger males. Within age classes, however, body mass in spring did not accurately predict mating success in autumn. Reproductive rates were not affected by season of grazing by cattle, yearling male to female ratio or mature male to female ratio. Sire age had no effect on mean dates of calf births or on calf weights. Neither sire age nor season of grazing by cattle had significant effects on calf weights; however, mean date of birth was significantly earlier when cattle grazing occurred during the previous autumn than when cattle grazed during the preceding spring. Furthermore, the number of calves sired by yearling males was greater when cattle grazing occurred during autumn, than when grazing occurred during spring. In the years with disruptive cattle grazing during rut, females mated not only with yearling males, in general, but often with those who were lighter in body mass during the previous spring than others in the same cohort. The extent to which those yearling males are untested in combat with older, dominant herd bulls may have genetic consequences leading to differences in fitness and subsequent reductions in calf survival.
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