Influence of density and climate on population dynamics of a large herbivore under harsh environmental conditions
Simard MA., Coulson T., Gingras A., Cǒt SD.
Dynamics of herbivore populations can be influenced both by density-dependent processes and climate. We used age-at-harvest data for adult female white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) collected over 23 years to estimate survival and reproduction by age class and to identify effects of environmental factors. The study population was located on Anticosti Island (QC, Canada), at the northern limit of the species' range; the population was at high density, and the landscape had scarce forage and abundant snow during winter. Despite severe environmental conditions, population growth apparently increased during the study; adult survival was similar to other populations, although reproduction appeared lower. Winter severity was not related to survival, but density affected adult female survival. Density at estrus was the main factor influencing reproduction of 2- and 34-year-olds and also affected reproduction of prime-aged females (59-yr-olds), but not of older females. Reproductive rate of younger females was influenced by environmental conditions in autumn, such as high density or snow conditions that limited forage availability. Reproductive success of 59- and ≥10-year-old females appeared dependent on spring conditions favoring high-quality forage, probably through effects on neonatal survival. Relative to other studies on northern ungulates, demographic processes in our study appeared to be more affected by autumn and spring climate, in addition to population density, than by winter climate. We thus propose that population density, as well as autumn and spring climate, should be considered in management strategies. Harvest data offered a unique opportunity to study forest ungulates, for which individual monitoring is rarely possible. © 2010 The Wildlife Society.