Range Constraints for Introduced Elk in Southwest Yukon, Canada
Forage availability, snow depths, and winter temperatures were assessed to determine if they might impose range constraints on introduced elk (Cervus elaphus) that voluntarily colonized a 95 km2 area of southwest Yukon (Canada) in 1959. Parkland-like vegetation of stunted aspen (Populus tremuloides) and nonforest upland plant communities, which is atypical vegetation for a boreal forest environment, composed 30% of the colonized area. About 95% of the area produced less than 300 kg/ha of forage, which represents poor productivity compared to more southern elk ranges. In the remaining 5%, indigenous graminoid communities produced (average ± SD) 408 ± 131 kg/ha of forage, exceeded only by nonindigenous roadside vegetation with 652 ± 115 kg/ha. Data from radio-collared animals indicated that most elk occurrences (38% year-round) were associated with parkland-like vegetation, and fecal pellet groups were six times as frequent in indigenous graminoid vegetation as in forest vegetation. Late February 2011 snow depths of 41 ± 7 cm, during a year with a below-normal snowfall, suggested a potential for reduced winter access to forage. Meteorological data from 1981 – 2010 indicate that one-third of winter daily minima in the study area were likely lower than −20˚C, a threshold below which the metabolism of an elk calf must increase to maintain its body temperature. Each assessed habitat variable was unfavorable to elk compared with other western North American winter ranges, which may have limited the development of a more robust population in the southwestern Yukon.