Spatial ecology of mountain ungulates in the northern Rocky Mountains: range expansion, habitat characteristics, niche overlap, and migratory diversity
Lowrey, Blake Henson
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Mountain ungulates, although recognized as iconic and charismatic wildlife species, are the least studied and understood large mammals in western North America. The paucity of data, specifically concerning spatial ecology, presents a formidable challenge to regional wildlife managers tasked with the responsibility of managing populations with limited empirical studies on which to base decisions. We used GPS data collected from bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) and mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) sampled from multiple populations throughout the northern Rocky Mountains to develop comparative studies characterizing seasonal habitats and potential range expansion of introduced mountain goats, niche overlap with native bighorn sheep, and migratory diversity of restored, augmented, and native bighorn sheep. Slope was the dominant predictor of mountain goat habitat use in both seasons, although mountain goats selected for steeper slopes in winter than in summer. Regional extrapolations depicted suitable mountain goat habitat in the Snake River, Teton, Gros Ventre, Wyoming and Salt Ranges centered around steep and rugged areas. Although bighorn sheep occurred on steeper slopes than mountain goats in summer and mountain goats occurred on steeper slopes in winter, we observed broad niche overlap according to season-species niche models and observed GPS locations where the two species were sympatric. In native bighorn sheep herds, we observed longer migrations on average and significantly more variation among individuals when compared to restored herds. The enhanced individual variation in native herds resulted in diverse portfolios of migratory behaviors and ranges, including newly documented high elevation long-distance migrants, increased switching rates between migratory behaviors, and sub-populations that were diffusely spread across both summer and winter ranges. In contrast, restored herds had limited individual variation, were largely non-migratory, had less switching between years, and were generally concentrated on both summer and winter ranges. In addition to increasing the abundance and distribution of bighorn sheep on the landscape, we suggest there may be value in simultaneously increasing the diversity of seasonal movement strategies, and in so doing, building resilience to future perturbations and disease, and mirroring the movement portfolios observed in native populations of bighorn sheep.