Date of Award
Master of Science
Elk (Cervus canadensis) are known to exhibit high movement strategy diversity compared to other ungulate species. Most elk populations are migratory or partially migratory, presenting unique conservation and management challenges. For example, successful maintenance of multiple seasonal ranges and connectivity between them is necessary to conserve populations with migratory behaviors. Further study of the structure and maintenance of movement strategy diversity within partially migratory populations is needed to assist management and refine fundamental ecological theory. Improved understanding of the determinants of elk migratory timing is also important, with the dynamics of significant drivers likely to shift under future climate change and anthropogenic expansion. I investigated strategy-specific environmental responses in multiple Rocky Mountain elk populations and found evidence for a differentiation in resource use and selection among sympatric individuals using differing strategies. This result suggests a potential mechanism for the reduction of intraspecific competition and heightened population densities in partially migratory herds. However, the nature and strength of differentiation was found to be context dependent. I found that elk avoid human development and seasonally select for forage quantity over quality at relatively fine scales, highlighting some consistent selection responses as well. Overall, this analysis demonstrated intrapopulation response heterogeneity in partially migratory elk populations and characterized strategy-specific patterns of resource use and selection.I investigated how spring migratory timing and duration relate to spatiotemporal forage dynamics, finding that departure dates are affected by vegetative green-up along migratory corridors, while the duration of migration is influenced by the timing of green-up at the summer range. These results highlight a form of migratory plasticity, wherein migrants modulate both their departure date and the duration of their migration as a function of vegetative phenology. Additionally, I present a framework to quantify optimality of migratory movements in relation to peak forage conditions. On average, elk were found to exhibit high optimality, with interindividual variability along a gradient. My findings suggest a variety of responses to green-wave phenology, with optimality of movements differing as a function of individual and study area. This work contributes to the growing understanding of migratory plasticity as multidimensional and highlights the variability of migratory behavior within and among populations.
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