Research Accomplishment Reports 2009

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The Ecological Role of Large Mammals in the Forests of Kentucky and the Eastern United States: Implications for Conservation

J. Cox
Department of Forestry


Non-Technical Summary

Large mammal conservation and restoration present many challenges to the public, land owners, and wildlife managers. This research focuses on the role of large native mammals in the natural landscapes of the eastern U.S. and the development of recommendations for their conservation and restoration. This work will require a detailed understanding of the current large mammal communities in Kentucky and elsewhere in the southeastern U.S., and an evaluation of the importance of the faunal and landscape changes of the last two centuries relative to the restoration of biodiversity in the region.

2009 Project Description

We continue our research on reintroduced elk and recolonizing black bear in Kentucky, and a dwindling population of black bear in southcentral Florida. In addition to the initial project objectives, research was conducted on the effects of sea level rise on black bear and panther in Florida, and consulting work was provided that examined the potential impacts of oil and gas development on the Big Cypress ecosystem in Florida.

As elk in Kentucky have grown to nearly 11,000 they have come into conflict with humans throughout the restoration zone and remain difficult to survey, a topic of presentations given at an international conference in China (Annual Conference of the Society for Conservation Biology) and 2 invited talks (Indiana University, Alice Lloyd College). Although funding from the state wildlife agency was not renewed for the elk project in 2009 (due to internal competition for these funds within the agency), we continued to monitor 5 GPS collared elk and stockpiled an additional 12 collars in anticipation of funding in 2010 that will allow examination of adult bull elk demographics and resource use patterns.

The relatively new GPS technology we use allows researchers to either download stored GPS data from a close distance, or to have it transmitted via cell phone signal to a centralized computer. Our findings continue to indicate that this new technology provides superior reliability to traditional vhf telemetry and older store-on-board GPS units.

Analytical consulting was provided to a graduate student researching PA elk at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (1 completed Masters thesis).

Finally, a 3-year study of elk-parasite relations in Kentucky revealed the transplacental transmission of antibodies to a potentially life-threatening parasite, the meningeal worm (1 completed Masters thesis).

We are also continuing our research on the ecology of black bears in southeastern Kentucky and southcentral Florida. In 2009 we captured and radio-collared an additional 34 bears in Kentucky and 3 in Florida. Most bears were equipped with GPS collars, including some with said cell-phone transmittable data. In both bear studies, we are currently analyzing resource selection and movement patterns, including bear-road relationships in Kentucky (1 completed Masters thesis), identification of critical road crossing corridors in Florida, the efficacy of select GPS collar models (1 completed Masters thesis), and the effects of bear nuisance behavior on fitness.

We initiated a funded study of black bear genetics in Kentucky that has yielded nearly 200 hair samples that will inform us of population structuring and relative influence of bears from neighboring states in contributing to Kentucky's recolonizing bear population.

Finally, work was concluded on a model that examined the potential impact of sea level rise on Florida panther and black bear (1 completed Masters thesis).

Our target audiences for dissemination of research findings included natural resource professionals, UK students, land stewards and planners, local government officials, private land owners, and non-governmental organizations.

2009 Impact

Our research findings have impacted a variety of stakeholders within Kentucky and beyond. Detailed GPS-based movement data have provided a foundation for new analytical approaches that is changing the way black bear and other large mammal telemetry data are collected and interpreted. These findings continue to inform both professional and public audiences about these ecologically and economically important species.

Research on black bear in both Florida and Kentucky have provided important demographic, resource and habitat use, and movement data valuable to wildlife and other natural resource managers and land stewards. For example, wildlife managers in KY suspect that elk are nearing regional social and ecological carrying capacity but data on species abundance and distribution were lacking until our forward looking infrared survey (1 draft manuscript) and analytical model was used by the state wildlife agency to adjust elk harvest limits and population models and to delineate hunt boundaries for 2009. Our black bear research informed state wildlife managers in their decision to cautiously proceed in 2009 with Kentucky's 1st bear hunt.

Our continued black bear den work is providing insights into the impacts of nuisance behavior on fitness of this recolonizing population. The black bear in southcentral Florida is an important flagship and umbrella species for the many lower profile, less charismatic threatened and endangered species that inhabit the unique sand scrub of the Lakes Wales Region. We continue identifying important core and dispersal habitat for the imperiled bear population in south central Florida, including locations bears use to cross highways and thereby maintain demographic connectivity. Local government officials in Highlands County, FL and regional land stewards are currently using our bear data to inform development plans in ways that reduce impacts on bears and other species that use similar habitats - the subject of a workshop we hosted at Archbold Research Station in December.

In addition to these applications, we work with a number of local cattle ranchers to help them understand the impact of their land management practices on black bears and other species. Findings from the Florida panther-black bear sea level rise model is likely to influence a number of stakeholders in that area and lead to actions that seek to mitigate the effects of inundation on these 2 species and others sympatric within their range.

A science-based understanding and appreciation for the black bear and elk will strongly influence educational efforts and concomitant public perceptions about the species in ways that reduce human-wildlife conflict and that promotes species viability. For example, our black bear and elk projects and related GPS-cell phone and tracking technological applications was the subject of a presentation to nearly 300 Rowan County, KY middle school science students in November. In addition, the Florida black bear project reached perhaps millions of people via a television segment that aired on CNN ( ).

2009 Publications

Davis, S.E. III, K. Hines, W. Conner, J.J. Cox, D. Gawlik, J. Jackson, J. Jones, F. M.Wilhelm, and J. Richards. 2009. Oil and gas impacts in the Big Cypress ecosystem: An analysis of impacts associated with proposed activities in the Nobles Grade area. Draft manuscript. Everglades Foundation.

Cox, J.J., L. Dahl, K. Alexy, D. Unger, W. Bowling, D. Maehr, and J. Larkin. 2009. Irruptive growth of reintroduced elk in Kentucky: looming management and conservation challenges. Society for Conservation Biology 23rd Annual Conference. July 10-16. Beijing, China.

Kougher, J.D. 2009. Multiple scale resource selection by elk (Cervus elaphus) in northcentral Pennsylvania. M.S. Thesis. Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA.

Jensen, R.A. 2009. The effects of roads on space use and movements of black bears in eastern Kentucky. M.S. Thesis. University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

Augustine, B. 2009. GPS bias in resource selection studies: a case study using black bears in southeastern Kentucky. M.S. Thesis. University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

Bowling, W. 2009. Maternal antibody transfer and meningeal worm infection rates in Kentucky elk. M.S. Thesis. University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

Whittle, A. 2009. Florida panther and black bear: a road and urban avoidance/utilization analysis and impacts of land use and climate change on large carnivore habitat in Florida. M.S. Thesis. University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.