Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Name

Fish and Wildlife Biology

Department or School/College

W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation

Committee Chair

Joshua Millspaugh

Commitee Members

Creagh Breuner, M. Colter Chitwood, Michael Mitchell, Michael Schwartz


Conservation behavior, Conservation genetics, Conservation physiology, Reintroduction, Restoration, Translocation


University of Montana


Wildlife translocation – the intentional movement of animals – is a crucial conservation tool for restoring species and halting global biodiversity decline. However, this practice is challenging for wildlife, and animals must adjust to their release landscapes for restoration to be successful. The period following release is a vulnerable time for translocated wildlife and determining when and how animals eventually acclimate following releases allows researchers to efficiently tailor post-release management to each species’ needs, thus maximizing the success of translocations while minimizing costs of an already expensive conservation practice. In this dissertation, I investigate changes in the physiological, behavioral, and social dynamics of 106 elk (Cervus canadensis) during the 6-8 years following their release to Missouri, U.S.A. in 2011-2013. I define the acclimation period throughout this work as the duration of time prior to stabilization in each investigated response relative to time from release. In Chapter 1, I analyzed changes in glucocorticoid metabolites (fGCMs) as an indicator of physiological acclimation. Fecal GCM levels declined following translocation and subsequently stabilized relative to days from release at approximately 42 days. The fast physiological acclimation by Missouri elk relative to other species suggests relatively low sensitivity by elk to translocation and effective use of temporary post-release management efforts. In Chapter 2, I investigated changes in elk spatial behavior (movements and resource selection patterns) using location data from GPS-collars deployed on all translocated elk. Changes in resource selection and monthly individual range sizes and overlap relative to time from release stabilized within the first year of translocation. Sexes varied in their post-release movement dynamics, with females showing faster and stronger evidence of acclimation following translocations that occurred during the parturition season. Significant temporal dynamics in selection for multiple resource covariates indicated that elk did not demonstrate a simple forage-refuge tradeoff while acclimating to their release landscape. In Chapter 3, I investigated dynamics in elk mating structure using paternity analysis on DNA extracted from tissue samples of all translocated elk and subsequently captured adults and calves. Following a translocation tactic favoring releases of young-aged males, initial polygyny in the restored Missouri population was low; however, polygyny levels increased and stabilized to expected values within four years of the last translocation event. Importantly, initial dampened polygyny may facilitate retention of genetic variation by maximizing the genetic contribution of more founding individuals. In Chapter 4, I investigated retention of genetic diversity over initial generations following release and projected future losses over a management-relevant time period. The Missouri elk population retained relatively high levels of genetic diversity as evidenced by minimal losses in allelic richness and expected heterozygosity (He), and we projected similarly stable He levels for the next 130 years (loss < 10%). Together, these results suggest translocated wildlife acclimate to their release landscapes in a continuum of response, with behavior lagging physiological responses, and larger-scaled population processes, such as mating structure, sitting at the ultimate end of this spectrum. Investigating the manifold changes of translocated animals as they acclimate to their release landscape represents an opportunity to improve post-release monitoring and assessment while directly informing dynamic management needs of restored populations.



© Copyright 2021 Ellen Marie Pero