Hierarchical habitat selection by woodland caribou: its relationship to limiting factors

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Abstract

Habitat selection is a hierarchical process that may yield various patterns depending on the scales of investigation. We employed satellite radio-telemetry to examine patterns of habitat selection by female woodland caribou in central Saskatchewan at both coarse (seasonal range) and fine (daily area) scales. At each scale, we converted spatial data describing compositions of available and used habitat to standardised resource selection indices and examined them with multivariate analyses of variance. Seasonal ranges generally showed preferential inclusion of peatlands and black spruce dominated stands relative to recently disturbed stands and early seral stage forests. In all populations, caribou preferred peatlands and black spruce forests to all other habitat types at the daily area scale, in general, these patterns may reveal the effective avoidance of wolves, the primary factor limiting caribou throughout the boreal forest. In three populations where seasonal ranges showed the selective inclusion of either young jack pine stands or clearcuts along with peatlands and black spruce forests, we found a relative avoidance of the clearcuts and young jack pine stands at the daily area scale. As all caribou populations in the area are thought to be relics of a once more continuous distribution, the seasonal range selection by animals in disturbed areas may better describe historic rather than current habitat selection. We found inter-annual variation in selection at the coarser spatial scale in one population, and inter-seasonal variation in selection at the finer spatial scale in three populations, indicating that the relative grains of the spatial and temporal scales coincide. We were better able to explain the seasonal variations in finer scale selection by considering available forage, a factor less likely than predation to limit woodland caribou populations. The data agree with the theory that the spatial and temporal hierarchy of habitat selection reflects the hierarchy of factors potentially limiting individual fitness.

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