Community-level Modelling of Boreal Forest Mammal Distribution in an Oil Sands Landscape

Julian Wittische
Scott Heckbert
Patrick James
Cole Burton
Jason Fisher
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Anthropogenic landscape disturbances are known to alter, destroy, and fragment habitat, which typically leads to biodiversity loss. The effects of landscape disturbance generally vary among species and depend on the nature of the disturbances, which may interact and result in synergistic effects. Western Canada's oil sands region experiences disturbances from forestry and energy sector activities as well as municipal and transportation infrastructure. The effects of those disturbances on single species have been studied and have been implicated in declines of the boreal woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou). Yet, the specific responses of the mammal community, and of functional groups such as prey and predators, to those interacting disturbances are still poorly known. We investigated the responses of black bear, grey wolf, coyote, fisher, lynx, red fox, American red squirrel, white-tailed deer, moose, caribou, and snowshoe hare to both natural habitat and disturbance associated with anthropogenic features within Alberta's northeast boreal forest. We used a novel community-level modelling framework on three years of camera-trap data collected in an oil sands landscape. This framework allowed us to identify the natural and anthropogenic features which explained the most variation in occurrence frequency among functional groups, as well as compare responses to linear and non-linear anthropogenic disturbance. Occurrence frequency by predators was better explained by anthropogenic features than by natural habitat. Both linear and non-linear anthropogenic features helped explain occurrence frequency by prey and predators, although the effects differed in magnitude and spatial scale. To better conserve boreal biodiversity, management actions should extend beyond a focus on caribou and wolves and aim to restore habitat across a diversity of anthropogenic disturbances and monitor the dynamics of the entire mammal community.