Habitat Alteration or Climate: What Drives the Densities of an Invading Ungulate?

Melanie Dickie
Robert Serrouya
Marcus Becker
Craig DeMars
Michael Noonan
Robin Steenweg
Stan Boutin
Adam Ford
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Anthropogenic habitat alteration and climate change are two well-known contributors to biodiversity loss through changes to species distribution and abundance; yet, disentangling the effects of these two factors is often hindered by their inherent confound across both space and time. We leveraged a contrast in habitat alteration associated with the jurisdictional boundary between two Canadian provinces to evaluate the relative effects of spatial variation in habitat alteration and climate on white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) densities. White-tailed deer are an invading ungulate across much of North America, whose expansion into Canada's boreal forest is implicated in the decline of boreal caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), a species listed as Threatened in Canada. We estimated white-tailed deer densities using 300 remote cameras across 12 replicated 50 km2 landscapes over 5 years. White-tailed deer densities were significantly lower in areas where winter severity was higher. For example, predicted deer densities declined from 1.83 to 0.35 deer/km2 when winter severity increased from the lowest value to the median value. There was a tendency for densities to increase with increasing habitat alteration; however, the magnitude of this effect was approximately half that of climate. Our findings suggest that climate is the primary driver of white-tailed deer populations; however, understanding the mechanisms underpinning this relationship requires further study of over-winter survival and fecundity. Long-term monitoring at the invasion front is needed to evaluate the drivers of abundance over time, particularly given the unpredictability of climate change and increasing prevalence of extreme weather events.