1. In migratory populations, the degree of fidelity and dispersal among seasonal ranges is an important population process with consequences for demography, management, sensitivity to habitat change and adaptation to local environmental conditions.
2. Characterizing patterns of range fidelity in ungulates, however, has remained challenging because of the difficulties of following large numbers of marked individuals across multiple migratory cycles and of identifying the appropriate scale of analysis.
3. We examined fidelity to wet season (i.e. breeding) ranges in a recently declining population of wildebeest Connochaetes taurinus Burchell in northern Tanzania across 3 years. We used computer-assisted photographic identification and capture–recapture to characterize return patterns to three wet season ranges that were ecologically discrete and topographically isolated from one another.
4. Among 2557 uniquely identified adult wildebeest, we observed 150 recaptures across consecutive wet seasons. Between the two migratory subpopulations, the probability of remaining faithful to wet season areas ranged between 0·82 and 1·00. Animals from a non-migratory segment of the population (near Lake Manyara National Park) were rarely observed in other wet season ranges, despite proximity to one of the migratory pathways.
5. We found no effect of sex on an individuals’ probability of switching wet season ranges. However, the breeding status of females in year i had a strong influence on patterns of range selection in year i + 1, with surviving breeders over three times as likely to switch ranges as non-breeders.
6. Social-group associations between pairs of recaptured animals were random with respect to an individual’s wet season range during the previous or forthcoming wet seasons, suggesting that an individual’s herd identity during the dry season does not predict wet season range selection.
7. Examining fidelity and dispersal in terrestrial migrations improves our understanding of the constraints that migrants experience when they face rapid habitat changes or fluctuations in environmental conditions.