Examining shifts in boreal carnivore species’ resource selection in response to predator control to conserve woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in western Canada

Date

2022-10-05

Authors

Baillie-David, Katherine

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Abstract

Predators play a critical role in regulating the structure and function of ecosystems by exhibiting top-down forces on lower trophic levels. Despite their important contributions in maintaining ecosystem health, lethal predator control remains a global wildlife management strategy to reduce predation on livestock, culturally and/or economically important species, and species at risk, as well as to reduce conflict with humans. Predator control has received criticism due in part to a paucity of rigorous research on the community-level impacts of this practice, beyond the target prey species. Specifically, there is a lack of understanding of the behavioural consequences of predator control on the wider ecological community. In this thesis, I used a multi-year camera trap dataset to evaluate how government-mandated grey wolf (Canis lupus) population reduction to conserve boreal woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) could impact the resource selection of the carnivore community in northeast Alberta, Canada. In my second chapter, I investigated whether perceived persecution risk due to predator control may alter wolf habitat selection. I found that wolves switched from positively associating with roads before predator control to avoiding anthropogenic linear features and selecting for block features after predator control. These results suggest that lethal control may prompt wolves to prioritize local prey acquisition near block features over movement on linear features. In my third chapter, I examined whether coyote, lynx, and black bear exhibited shifts in co-occurrence with habitat features, competitors, and prey consistent with a release from top-down suppression in response to predator control. I found that predator control triggered unexpected behavioural changes among coyote and lynx consistent with a release from top-down suppression, but not among black bears. Non-apex predator response to predator control may depend on the strength of competition between the apex and non-apex predator, emphasizing the need to consider bottom-up processes when trying to understand the indirect effects of predator control. This research demonstrates that predator control can have trickle-down effects within the larger ecological community, specifically affecting how species utilize resources. As predator control continues to be a recommended wildlife management strategy, it is imperative to continue investigating its unintended consequences throughout the ecological community.

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Keywords

Predator control, Wildlife management, Alberta, Camera trap, Habitat selection, Species co-occurrence, Boreal forest, Wildlife, Ecology

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