Cumulative effects of human landscape change, predators, and natural habitat drive distributions of an invasive ungulate

Date

2018-12-07

Authors

Darlington, Siobhan

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Abstract

Human footprint - in which land is converted for human use - is a leading contributor to global habitat and biodiversity loss. The accelerated rate of human landscape change to meet our growing needs has led to the direct loss of critical habitat and shifts in species distributions, interactions, and behaviour. These altered conditions affect species’ ability to adapt to environmental stressors, while some species thrive and others decline. In North America, one ungulate has successfully invaded new habitat in conjunction with human land use – the white-tailed deer. Across the continent, the invasion of white-tailed deer has led to increased competition with other ungulate species including mule deer, moose, and woodland caribou. In regions with abundant apex predators, they have become a source of primary prey as their populations increase. The mechanisms by which deer occupy landscapes in the northern extents of their geographic range are not well studied outside of the winter months, or how deer respond behaviourally to various types of human disturbance in a predator-rich environment. To address these knowledge gaps, I examined population scale resource selection across seasons and individual movement behaviour in white-tailed deer in northeastern Alberta’s intensively developed oil and gas landscape. I used previously developed models of predator frequency to spatially extrapolate wolf and black bear occurrence across my study region as indicators of indirect predation risk. I used two approaches to habitat modeling to examine deer responses to various modes of human landscape change, including roads, seismic lines, and cut blocks in addition to predators and natural habitat. Deer were best described by cumulative effects – or the combination of all of these factors – across all seasons with proximity to linear features explaining the most variation among the parameters tested. Most prominently in winter, deer strongly selected for habitat features expected to contain abundant natural sources of forage, and linear features, despite a potential increased risk of predation by wolves – suggesting that deer make energetic trade-offs between forage availability and predation risk. At the individual level, deer significantly increased their rate of movement when occupying habitat associated with predation risk. I suggest that deer make greater energetic trade-offs during winter when mobility is limited to evade predators and energetic costs are higher. The continued use of anthropogenic features post-winter, increased rate of movement and spread of landscape occupancy by deer may allude to the importance of human disturbance in maintaining deer in northern climates. Linear corridors may be an important mechanism by which deer are able to successfully colonize new areas at the northern extents of their range. My results shed light on the drivers of deer distributions in human altered landscapes for managing populations where the invasion of deer is complicit in the decline of other ungulate species such as woodland caribou in Alberta’s boreal forest.

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Keywords

animal movement, white-tailed deer, resource selection, integrated step selection analysis, apparent competition, oil and gas, northeastern Alberta

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