Seasonal Habitat Selection by Resident and Translocated Caribou in Relation to Cougar Predation Risk




Leech, Heather

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Mountain caribou, an arboreal lichen-feeding ecotype of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), have been extirpated from much of their historic range. Mountain caribou are federally listed as Endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and red-listed by the BC government. Habitat loss and fragmentation of old growth forest is the ultimate cause for population declines. Yet, predation, linked to apparent competition, is the proximate cause for high rates of mortality. One of the most imperiled populations resides in the Purcell Mountains of BC, which was experimentally augmented in 2012 with 19 northern caribou from northern BC. The caribou-predator literature predominantly focuses on the relationship between caribou and wolves (Canis lupus) in northern caribou populations. However, cougars (Puma concolor) have been identified as a major predator of Purcells-South (PS) caribou, yet caribou-cougar interactions remain largely unstudied. I evaluated cougar predation risk in space and time on resident and translocated caribou in the Purcell Mountains. To do so, I determined biologically relevant seasons for resident, donor (i.e. not translocated) and translocated caribou, and cougars. I then used these seasons to investigate seasonal patterns of movement and habitat use between the three groups of caribou and cougars. Next I used resource selection functions (RSFs) to estimate habitat based seasonal variation in predation risk. I used these RSFs to compare the seasonal habitat selection and risk to cougar predation between resident and translocated caribou. Five resident caribou seasons and two cougar seasons were defined. Translocated caribou displayed inconsistent movement behavior with no clear seasonal pattern. Resident caribou remained at high elevations year-round and selected for low risk cougar habitat during the calving season at the home range scale and year-round at the landscape scale. Translocated caribou displayed risky behaviour throughout the study period by traveling to mid to low elevations and habitats selected by cougars. Translocated caribou displayed the same general pattern of elevational movement as their northern conspecifics, spending the majority of their time at lower elevations than resident caribou. Of the 19 translocated caribou, 17 (89%) died during the study, six of which were preyed upon by cougars, two by wolves, and the remainder due to accidents or unknown causes. In summary, translocated caribou did not adopt the predator avoidance or habitat selection strategies of resident caribou. I recommend that future efforts to augment small caribou populations use donor caribou experienced with similar predators and that possess comparable seasonal habitat use to the recipient population. However, because most suitable donor populations are declining, a soft-release of captive-reared mountain caribou might be the best option for mountain caribou recovery efforts.



British Columbia, habitat selection, predation risk, Puma concolor, Rangifer taradus caribou, resource selection functions, seasonality