Habitat selection by female Dall's sheep (Ovis dalli dalli) during lambing was studied in interior Alaska, U.S.A., in 1988 and 1989. Selection of habitat changed with the chronology of lambing. During the pre-lambing period, maternal females selected sites with forage and avoided snow-covered areas. During peak lambing, food and steep slopes continued to be selected. Distance to escape terrain was a critical component of habitat selection by females throughout lambing. Maternal bands that ventured farther from escape terrain were in larger groups. Abundance of forage also increased in areas that were farther from this terrain.
Habitat selection by females also differed between years. In 1989, a late spring storm resulted in deep snow and delayed phenology of plants; forage was of lower quality, and the growing season was much shorter in 1989 than in 1988. Births of lambs also occurred later and less synchronously in the second year. Females selected terrain characteristics that were related to avoiding predators in 1988 when forage was more plentiful, but selected sites with forage in 1989 when food was less abundant.
Group size of maternal bands was larger in 1988 than in 1989, and females foraged most efficiently during 1988. Large groups may not have occurred in 1989 because lambs were born asynchronously, preventing cohesive movements of maternal bands with lambs of differing ages.
Both the chronology of lambing and a variable environment affected habitat selection by females. Maternal females made trade-offs between the requirements for forage to meet the high energetic costs of lactation and the risk of predation.