Wolves, white-tailed deer, and beaver: implications of seasonal prey switching for woodland caribou declines


A. D. M. Latham, Dept of Biological Sciences, Univ. of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 2E9, Canada. ADML also at: Landcare Research, PO Box 69040, Lincoln 7640, Canterbury, New Zealand. E-mail: lathamd@landcareresearch.co.nz


Population increases of primary prey can negatively impact alternate prey populations via demographic and behavioural responses of a shared predator through apparent competition. Seasonal variation in prey selection patterns by predators also can affect secondary and incidental prey by reducing spatial separation. Global warming and landscape changes in Alberta's bitumen sands have resulted in prey enrichment, which is changing the large mammal predator–prey system and causing declines in woodland caribou Rangifer tarandus caribou populations. We assessed seasonal patterns of prey use and spatial selection by wolves Canis lupus in two woodland caribou ranges in northeastern Alberta, Canada, that have undergone prey enrichment following recent white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus invasion. We determined whether risk of predation for caribou (incidental prey) and the proportion of wolf-caused-caribou mortalities varied with season. We found that wolves showed seasonal variation in primary prey use, with deer and beaver Castor canadensis being the most common prey items in wolf diet in winter and summer, respectively. These seasonal dietary patterns were reflected in seasonal wolf spatial resource selection and resulted in contrasting spatial relationships between wolves and caribou. During winter, wolf selection for areas used by deer maintained strong spatial separation between wolves and caribou, whereas wolf selection for areas used by beaver in summer increased the overlap with caribou. Changing patterns in wolf resource selection were reflected by caribou mortality patterns, with 76.2% of 42 adult female caribou mortalities occurring in summer. Understanding seasonal patterns of predation following prey enrichment in a multiprey system is essential when assessing the effect of predation on an incidental prey species. Our results support the conclusion that wolves are proximately responsible for woodland caribou population declines throughout much of their range.