Conditions for caribou persistence in the wolf-elk-caribou systems of the Canadian Rockies
AbstractWoodland caribou populations are considered threatened in Alberta and have declined in the Canadian Rocky Mountain National Parks of Banff and Jasper despite protection from factors causing caribou populations to decline outside of parks. Recent research emphasizes the importance of the numeric response of wolves to moose in moose-caribou-wolf systems to caribou persistence. Moose are rare in the Canadian Rockies, where the dominant ungulate prey for wolves is elk. Few studies have explored wolf-elk dynamics and none have examined implications for caribou. We used data collected in Banff to estimate the numeric response of wolves to elk from 1985 to 2005. Because no caribou kill-rate data exist for the Rockies, we explore the consequences of a range of hypothetical kill-rates based on kill-rates of alternate prey collected from 1985 to 2000 in Banff. We then multiplied the numeric response of wolves by the estimated caribou kill-rates to estimate the wolf predation response on caribou as a function of elk density. Caribou predation rates were inversely density dependent because wolf numbers depend on prey species besides caribou in multiple prey species systems. We then combined this simple wolf-elk-caribou model with observed demographic and population estimates for Banff and Jasper caribou from 2003-2004 and solved for the critical kill-rate thresholds above which caribou populations would decline. Using these critical kill-rate thresholds, Jasper caribou are likely to persist when wolf densities are below 2.1 - 4.3 wolves/1000km2 and/or when elk densities are below 0.015- 0.033 elk/km2. Thresholds for Banff caribou persistence are much lower because of inverse density dependence. Future research is needed on some of the necessary assumptions underlying our modeling including multi-prey wolf numeric responses, wolf kill-rates of caribou, caribou mortality by other predators, and spatial aspects of wolf-elk-caribou dynamics.
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