Spatial structure of boreal woodland caribou populations in northwest Canada
Local population units (LPUs) were delineated in Canada’s recovery strategy for threatened boreal woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou). Population viability analyses central to contemporary integrated risk assessments of LPUs implicitly assume geographic closure. Several LPUs in northwest Canada, however, were in part delineated by geopolitical boundaries and/or included large areas in the absence of evidence of more finely resolved population spatial structure. We pooled >1.2 million locations from >1200 GPS or VHF-collared caribou from northeast British Columbia, northwest Alberta and southwestern Northwest Territories. Bayesian cluster analysis generated 10 alternative candidate LPUs based on a spatial cluster graph of the extent of pairwise co-occurrence of collared caribou. Up to four groups may be artifacts in as yet under-sampled areas. Four were mapped LPUs that were conserved (Prophet, Parker, Chinchaga and Red Earth). One small group between Parker and Snake-Sahtaneh known locally as the “Fort Nelson core,” and outside any mapped LPU, was also conserved. Finally, one large group, at >136000 km2, spanned all three jurisdictions and subsumed all of six delineated LPUs (Maxhamish, Snake-Sahtaneh, Calendar, Bistcho, Yates, Caribou Mountains) and part of southern Northwest Territories. These results suggest less geographic closure of LPUs than those currently delineated, but further analyses will be required to better reconcile various sources of knowledge about local population structure in this region.
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