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Keywords:

  • Cervus elaphus;
  • elk;
  • Euclidean distance;
  • GIS;
  • roads;
  • utilization distribution;
  • visibility

Abstract

Despite the near universal recognition that roads negatively affect wildlife, the mechanisms that elicit animal responses to roads are often ambiguous or poorly understood. We conducted a multi-year, multi-season study to assess the relative influence of roads on elk (Cervus elaphus) in a human-dominated landscape in South Dakota. We evaluated the effects of habitat covariates including security cover, forage quality, distance to roads (primary, secondary, and tertiary), and visibility from roads at the home range scale. We radio-collared 28 elk (21 adult females and 7 adult males) and calculated seasonal (winter, spring, summer, and autumn) utilization distributions (UDs). We assigned habitat covariates to use percentiles within the UDs (1% increments; from 1 to 98 percentiles) and used spatially explicit mixed linear regression to model the relationship between use percentile and habitat covariates. For each season and sex, we evaluated 15 candidate models and used Akaike's Information Criterion weights (ωi) to identify top-ranking models. We plotted influential coefficients from these models with 95% confidence intervals to examine the magnitude of effects. Our analysis revealed fundamental differences in response to roads, by road type, between sexes, and across seasons. Male elk established home ranges near roads devoid of vehicle traffic in winter, spring, and autumn. In summer, coinciding with peak vehicle traffic levels, male elk reduced their use of habitat that was both visible from and close to primary roads. Female elk subherds similarly responded to primary roads in spring and autumn, during times of year when they were calving and mating, respectively. In spring and summer, female elk subherds selected habitat near roads that were closed to vehicle traffic. Forage quality and security cover were influential in the periphery (>50th use percentile) of elk home ranges, whereas road covariates were more influential towards the core of elk home ranges. This analysis further demonstrates the utility of visibility from road metrics and suggests that the retention of vegetation structures that screen visibility potential from roads could be important components of elk management strategies. © 2012 The Wildlife Society.