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Fire, grazing history, lichen abundance, and winter distribution of caribou in Alaska's taiga

Authors


  • Associate Editor: Robert J. Hudson.

Abstract

In the early 1990s the Nelchina Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) Herd (NCH) began a dramatic shift to its current winter range, migrating at least an additional 100 km beyond its historic range. We evaluated the impacts of fire and grazing history on lichen abundance and subsequent use and distribution by the NCH. Historic (prior to 1990) and current (2002) winter ranges of the NCH had similar vascular vegetation, lichen cover (P = 0.491), and fire histories (P = 0.535), but the former range had significantly less forage lichen biomass as a result of grazing by caribou. Biomass of forage lichens was twice as great overall (P = 0.031) and 4 times greater in caribou selected sites on the current range than in the historic range, greatly increasing availability to caribou. Caribou on the current range selected for stands with >20% lichen cover (P < 0.001), greater than 1,250 kg/ha (P < 0.001) forage lichen biomass and stands older than 80 yr postfire (P < 0.001). After fires, forage lichen cover and biomass seldom recovered sufficiently to attract caribou grazing until after ≥60 yr, and, as a group, primary forage lichen species did not reach maximum abundance until 180 yr postfire. Recovery following overgrazing can occur much more quickly because lichen cover, albeit mostly fragments, and organic substrates remain present. Our results provide benchmarks for wildlife managers assessing condition of caribou winter range and predicting effects of fires on lichen abundance and caribou distribution. Of our measurements of cover and biomass by species, densities and heights of trees, elevation, slope and aspect, only percentage cover by Cladonia amaurocraea, Cladina rangiferina, Flavocetraria cuculata, and lowbush cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) were necessary for predicting caribou use of winter range. © 2011 The Wildlife Society

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