We used a stochastic Leslie matrix model parameterized with demographic data from Wind Cave National Park to evaluate effects of four culling strategies on population growth rates and age and sex structure of bison (Bison bison Linnaeus). The four culling scenarios we modeled included removal of: (1) yearlings only; (2) calf/cow combination; (3) a herd-wide proportional cull (i.e., individuals taken in proportion to their availability); and (4) calves only. We also allowed either one, two, or three years to elapse between culls to mimic current management activities, and chose culling values for each scenario that would maintain a stable population (i.e., λ ≈ 1.00). In the absence of culling, our model projected a growth rate of 16% per year (λ= 1.16) (SD = 0.02) for the Wind Cave bison population. The modeled population was characterized by a unimodal age structure for bulls and cows and a 1:1 bull: cow ratio. Removal of 75% of the yearlings or 75% of the calves every year was needed to maintain abundance at current size. These culling strategies altered the age distribution from baseline conditions, resulting in nearly equal proportions of age classes 2–15. When yearling culling or calf removal was skipped one year or two consecutive years, the yearling or calf removal option resulted in positive population growth even in the presence of a 90% cull. Because these strategies nearly removed entire cohorts, corresponding gaps were introduced in the age structure. About 40% of calves and 20% of cows needed to be removed under the annual calf/cow cull to stabilize population growth, producing a unimodal age structure of cows. However, the proportion of bulls in the 2–16 age classes increased, and the proportion of males was nearly equal across the middle age classes. The proportional cull, regardless of time between culling operations, resulted in the most symmetric age structure for males and females. To achieve λ ≈ 1.00 under a proportional cull strategy, 16% of all animals would need to be removed annually, 33% every other year, or 50% once every three years. Sensitivity and elasticity analysis indicated that adult females (5–13 years old) were the most important group of bison affectingλ. These modeled effects, along with factors such as logistical constraints, costs, efficacy, viewing opportunities for tourists, genetics, behavior, and agency policies should be considered when managers choose among culling strategies. When considering historical predation and harvest by Native Americans, we hypothesize that the calf/cow combination cull would have most closely approximated natural bison demographics after the widespread availability of horses (Equus spp.) in the year 1735. Before 1735, we hypothesize that the proportional cull would most closely represent historic conditions, although even this option might not reproduce the variability inherent in historical bison dynamics. We discuss the possibility and management implications of variable culling that might more closely mimic historical influences on bison populations on the Northern Great Plains.
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