Have geographical influences and changing abundance led to sub-population structure in the Ahiak caribou herd, Nunavut, Canada?
Keywords:Ahiak herd, calving, geography, Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus, rutting, spatial fidelity, sub-population, tree-line
We examined the premise that changing abundance and environmental conditions influence the seasonal dispersion and distribution of migratory tundra caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus). The Ahiak herd’s (north-central Nunavut Territory, Canada) calving shifted from dispersed on islands to gregarious calving on the mainland coast. As abundance further increased, the calving ground elongated east and west such that we proposed a longitudinal climate gradient. As well, the calving ground’s east and west ends are different distances from the tree-line, which dips south closer to Hudson Bay. We proposed that whether caribou winter on the tundra or within boreal forest and the different climate across the long calving ground could contribute to differential survival and productivity such that sub-population structure would result. At the scale of the individual cows (identified through satellite-collars), we did not find inter-annual spatial fidelity to either the western or eastern parts of the calving ground. At the population scale (aerial surveys of calving distribution), we also did not find discontinuities in calving distribution. The spatial association of individual cows during calving compared with their association during the rut was inconsistent among years, but overall, cows that calve together, rut together. At this time and with the available evidence, we could not infer sub-population structure from shifts in dispersion and distribution as influenced by geography and changes in abundance for the Ahiak herd.
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