Effect of Forest Understory Stand Density on Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) Habitat Selection

Steven Wilson
Thomas Nudds
Philip Green
Andrew de Vries
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Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou (Gmelin, 1788)) use older forests that provide abundant terrestrial lichen forage and refuge from predators. However, forest structural characteristics vary widely, differing in forage availability but also, perhaps, in the ability of caribou to move freely to access forage or to escape predation. We conducted a multivariate analysis of habitat in two geographically and biophysically distinct regions to identify the independent effects of various attributes, including forest understorey stand density, defined as standing and downed biomass, on caribou habitat selection. We developed Bayesian network models to predict the probability of habitat selection based on a set of remotely sensed habitat inputs. Caribou in the Bistcho range (northwestern Alberta) selected non-forest/sparsely forested areas, while caribou in the Trout Lake region (northwestern Ontario) selected primarily forested habitats, nevertheless consistent with selection for reduced predation risk in both cases. Caribou also selected forest stands with lower understorey stand density in both regions, consistent with selection for stands that would allow greater ease of movement. The high-resolution satellite data resolved habitat characteristics more consistently and in greater detail than standard forest cover datasets that are most often used for these analyses, and led us to conclude that habitat management may require different treatments in different parts of the species’ range to address what are nevertheless common pathways to decline.