Alex K. Prichard
Quantifying effects of snow depth on caribou winter range selection and movement in Arctic Alaska
Pedersen, S. H., T. W. Bentzen, A. K. Reinking, G. E. Liston, K. Elder, E. A. Lenart, A. K. Prichard, and J. M. Welker. 2021. Quantifying effects of snow depth on caribou winter range selection and movement in Arctic Alaska. Mov Ecol 9 (48): 24 pp. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40462-021-00276-4
Caribou and reindeer across the Arctic spend more than two thirds of their lives moving in snow. Yet snow-specific mechanisms driving their winter ecology and potentially influencing herd health and movement patterns are not well known. Integrative research coupling snow and wildlife sciences using observations, models, and wildlife tracking technologies can help fill this knowledge void.
Here, we quantified the effects of snow depth on caribou winter range selection and movement. We used location data of Central Arctic Herd (CAH) caribou in Arctic Alaska collected from 2014 to 2020 and spatially distributed and temporally evolving snow depth data produced by SnowModel. These landscape-scale (90 m), daily snow depth data reproduced the observed spatial snow-depth variability across typical areal extents occupied by a wintering caribou during a 24-h period.
We found that fall snow depths encountered by the herd north of the Brooks Range exerted a strong influence on selection of two distinct winter range locations. In winters with relatively shallow fall snow depth (2016/17, 2018/19, and 2019/20), the majority of the CAH wintered on the tundra north of the Brooks Range mountains. In contrast, during the winters with relatively deep fall snow depth (2014/15, 2015/16, and 2017/18), the majority of the CAH caribou wintered in the mountainous boreal forest south of the Brooks Range. Long-term (19 winters; 2001–2020) monitoring of CAH caribou winter distributions confirmed this relationship. Additionally, snow depth affected movement and selection differently within these two habitats: in the mountainous boreal forest, caribou avoided areas with deeper snow, but when on the tundra, snow depth did not trigger significant deep-snow avoidance. In both wintering habitats, CAH caribou selected areas with higher lichen abundance, and they moved significantly slower when encountering deeper snow.
In general, our findings indicate that regional-scale selection of winter range is influenced by snow depth at or prior to fall migration. During winter, daily decision-making within the winter range is driven largely by snow depth. This integrative approach of coupling snow and wildlife observations with snow-evolution and caribou-movement modeling to quantify the multi-facetted effects of snow on wildlife ecology is applicable to caribou and reindeer herds throughout the Arctic.