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Keywords:

  • anthropogenic disturbance;
  • boreal forest;
  • incidental predation;
  • northeastern Alberta;
  • shared predator;
  • spatial overlap;
  • white-tailed deer;
  • wolf–caribou dynamics

Abstract

Human-caused habitat change has been implicated in current woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) population declines across North America. Increased early seral habitat associated with industrial footprint can result in an increase in ungulate densities and subsequently those of their predator, wolves (Canis lupus). Higher wolf densities can result in increased encounters between wolves and caribou and consequently higher caribou mortality. We contrasted changes in moose (Alces alces) and deer (Odocoileus spp.) densities and assessed their effects on wolf–caribou dynamics in northeastern Alberta, Canada, pre (1994–1997) versus post (2005–2009) major industrial expansion in the region. Observable white-tailed deer (O. virginianus) increased 17.5-fold but moose remained unchanged. Wolf numbers also increased from approximately 6–11.5/1,000 km2. Coincident with these changes, spatial overlap between wolf pack territories and caribou range was high relative to the mid-1990s. The high number of wolf locations in caribou range suggests that forays were not merely exploratory, but rather represented hunting forays and denning locations. Scat analysis indicated that wolf consumption of moose declined substantively during this time period, whereas use of deer increased markedly and deer replaced moose as the primary prey of wolves. Caribou increased 10-fold in the diet of wolves and caribou population trends in the region changed from stable to declining. Wolf use of beaver (Castor canadensis) increased since the mid-1990s. We suggest that recent declines in woodland caribou populations in the southerly extent of their range have occurred because high deer densities resulted in a numeric response by wolves and consequently higher incidental predation on caribou. Our results indicate that management actions to conserve caribou must now include deer in primary prey and wolf reduction programs. © 2010 The Wildlife Society