Causes and Consequences of Broad-Scale Changes in the Distribution of Migratory Caribou (<i>Rangifer tarandus</i>) of Southern Hudson Bay
Keywords:anthropogenic disturbance, body size, diet, distribution, fecal nitrogen, forage, migratory caribou, Hudson Bay, Rangifer tarandus, range shift
Understanding the factors driving changes in species distributions is fundamental to conservation, but for wide-ranging species this is often complicated by the need for broad-scale observations across space and time. In the last three decades, the location of summer concentrations of migratory caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in southern Hudson Bay (SHB), Canada, has shifted south and east as much as 500 km. We used long-term data (1987 – 2011) to test two hypotheses that could explain the distribution shift: forage depletion and anthropogenic disturbance. Over time and space, we compared the body size of live-captured adult female caribou, dietary quality from fecal nitrogen in July, the location of VHF- and GPS-collared female caribou in July, distribution of all-terrain vehicle (ATV) tracks and caribou tracks in August, and the proximity of collared caribou to sections of the coast with higher ATV activity in spring and summer. The forage depletion hypothesis was supported by greater body size and dietary quality in caribou of the eastern portion of SHB than in western SHB animals in 2009 – 11. The anthropogenic disturbance hypothesis was supported by the negative correlation of the distributions of ATV tracks and caribou tracks on the coast in 2010 and the fact that caribou avoided areas with ATV activity by 10 – 14 km. In 1987, collared caribou were observed largely along the coast in western SHB in mid-July, while in 2009 – 11, they were inland in western SHB and along the coast in eastern SHB. While these locations demonstrate a substantial change in summer distribution over three decades, we were unable to differentiate between forage depletion and anthropogenic disturbance as a single causal factor of the distribution shift.