Evolving perspectives on caribou population dynamics, have we got it right yet?
Keywords:caribou, population ecology, predation, limitation factors
AbstractThe roles of food, weather and predation are compared between sedentary and migratory caribou herds. Sedentary herds disperse (space out) at calving time while the cows of migratory herds move in masse (space away) to calving grounds to reduce predation risk. The sedentary ecotype calves on ranges near open water if tree cover is present or in rugged topography in the absence of tree cover. The migratory ecotype aggregates on calving grounds located on alpine mountain plateaus or on the tundra north of the Arctic tree line. The two herds with the greatest densities in North America, the sedentary Slate Islands Herd and the migratory George River Herd both had changes in abundance that followed summer food problems. The hypothesis that winter lichen supplies determine abundance and set the carrying capacity is rejected. Lichens are not a necessary food for caribou. A review of the mortality of young calves documented in the past 30 years provides no support for the hypothesis that hypothermia is a common mortality problem. Young calves documented can be born inviable at birth if their dams are severely malnourished. The migratory caribou in North America reached peak numbers in the 1980s after wolf populations were heavily harvested in the 1970s. The sedentary ecotype is frequently regulated by wolf predation that affects both recruitment (R) and the mortality of adults (M). The balance between R/M schedules commonly occurs when R (calves) represents, about 15% of the herd and when numbers (prorated to the area of the dispersed annual range) approximate 0.06 caribou/km2. Population limitation of migratory herds by predation has occurred in the NWT and in several herds in Alaska but only when wolf densities were > 6.5/1000 km2. Wolf predation halted the growth of the George River Herd in 1980 but then wolves contracted rabies and the herd again increased and degraded spring/summer ranges. The reduced summer phytomass resulted in lower birth rates and increased the vulnerability of calves and possibly adults to wolf predation. Stabilizing mechanisms for migratory herds include movements between herds above tree line and range contractions/expansions with resultant changes in demography. It is hypothesized that the most important ecological variable in all seasonal distributions of caribou is predation risk rather than to maximize forage supplies.
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