We tested the hypothesis that elk in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) were at ecological carrying capacity by determining herd-specific levels of nutritional condition and fecundity. Ingesta-free body fat levels in adult cows that were lactating were 10.6% (s = 1.7; range = 6.2–15.4) and 7.7% (s = 0.5; range = 5.9–10.1) in November 2001 for the Horseshoe and Moraine Park herds, respectively. Cows that were not lactating were able to accrue significantly more body fat: 14.0% (s = 1.1; range = 7.7–19.3) and 11.5% (s = 0.8; range = 8.6–15.1) for the Horseshoe and Moraine Park herds, respectively. Cow elk lost most of their body fat over winter (April 2002 levels were 3.9% [s = 0.4] and 2.9% [s = 0.4] for the Horseshoe and Moraine Park herds, respectively). Nutritional condition indicated that both Horseshoe Park and Moraine Park elk were well below condition levels elk can achieve on very good–excellent nutrition (i.e., >15% body fat; Cook et al. 2004) and were comparable to other free-ranging elk populations. However, condition levels were higher than those expected at a "food-limited" carrying capacity, and a proportion of elk in each herd were able to achieve condition levels indicative of very good–excellent nutrition. Elk in RMNP are likely regulated and/or limited by a complex combination of density-independent (including significant heterogeneity in forage conditions across RMNP's landscape) and density-dependent processes, as condition levels contradict a simple density-dependent model of a population at ecological carrying capacity.
Bender, Louis C. and Cook, John G.
"Nutritional condition of elk in Rocky Mountain National Park,"
Western North American Naturalist: Vol. 65
, Article 4.
Available at: https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/wnan/vol65/iss3/4