The coastal temperate rainforest is one of the rarest ecosystems in the world, and a major portion of the global total is found in Southeast Alaska. In this ecosystem, Sitka black-tailed deer are the dominant large herbivore, influencing large carnivores that prey on deer such as wolves and bears, as well as plant species and communities through browsing. In addition, deer play an important economic and cultural role for humans in Southeast Alaska, making up the large majority of terrestrial subsistence protein harvested each year as well as providing the backbone of a thriving tourism industry built around sport hunting. Given the importance of deer in this system, there remain a surprisingly large number of key gaps in our knowledge of deer ecology in Southeast Alaska. These knowledge gaps are potentially troubling in light of ongoing industrial timber-harvest across the region, which greatly alters habitat characteristics and value to wildlife. This dissertation research project was undertaken with the aim of filling several connected needs for further understanding deer ecology, specifically 1) patterns of reproduction and fawn survival, 2) population dynamics in response to environmental variability, and the underlying drivers of spatial selection during 3) reproduction and 4) winter. To fill these knowledge gaps, I developed robust statistical tools for estimating rates of fawn survival, and found that fawns must be captured at birth, rather than within several days of birth, in order to produce unbiased estimates because highly vulnerable individuals died quickly and were thus absent from the latter sample. I then use this robust approach to estimate vital rates, including fawn survival in winter and summer, and developed a model of population dynamics for deer. I found that winter weather had the strongest influence on population dynamics, via reduced over-winter fawn survival, with mass at birth and gender ratio of fawns important secondary drivers. To better understand deer-habitat relationships, I examined both summer and winter habitat selection patterns by female deer. Using summer-only data, I asked how reproductive female deer balance wolf and bear predation risk against access to forage over time. Predation risks and forage were strong drivers of deer spatial selection during summer, but reproductive period and time within reproductive period determined deer reaction to these drivers. To ensure adequate reproductive habitat for deer, areas with low predation risk and high forage should be conserved. Focusing on winter, I evaluated deer spatial selection during winter as a response to snow depth, vegetation classes, forage, and landscape features. I allowed daily snow depth measures to interact with selection of other covariates, and found strong support for deer avoidance of deep snow, as well as changes in deer selection of old-growth and second-growth habitats and landscape features with increasing snow depth. Collectively, this dissertation greatly improves our understanding of deer ecology in Alaska, and suggests habitat management actions that will help ensure resilient deer populations in the future.
Thesis (Ph.D.) University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2015
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