British Columbia Mine Reclamation Symposium

Bighorn sheep and Elk Valley coal mines : ecology and winter range assessment Poole, Kim G.; Smyth, Clint R.; Teske, Irene; Podrasky, Kevin; Serrouya, Robert; Sword, Greg; Amos, Lanny 2013

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12 July 2013  BIGHORN SHEEP AND ELK VALLEY COAL MINES; ECOLOGY AND WINTER RANGE ASSESSMENT  Kim G. Poole, RPBio a Clint R. Smyth, RPBio b Irene Teske, RPBio c Kevin Podrasky d Robert Serrouya, RPBio e Greg Sword, RFT f Lanny Amos, RPBio g  a Aurora Wildlife Research, 1918 Shannon Point Road, Nelson, BC  V1L 6K1 b Integral Ecology Group, 88 Governor Drive SW, Calgary, AB  T3E 4Y9 c BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, 205 Industrial Road G., Cranbrook, BC  V1C 7G5 d Teck Coal Ltd. ? Line Creek Operations, P.O Box 2003, Sparwood, BC  V0B 2G0 e Box 1522, Revelstoke, BC  V0E 2S0 f Teck Coal Ltd. ? Fording River Operations, P.O. Box 100, Elkford, BC  V0B 1H0 g Teck Coal Ltd. ? Elkview Operations, R.R. # 1, Hwy. # 3, Sparwood, BC  V0B 2G1  ABSTRACT  Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep inhabit the east side of the Elk Valley in southeastern British Columbia where forestry and 4 large, open pit coal mines are in operation. Sheep in this area generally winter at high elevation on windswept, south facing native grasslands, with some sheep also wintering on mine properties. Concurrent companion studies examined sheep habitat ecology and movements; and winter range plant communities and production, range condition, and winter diet. We monitored 41 ewes and rams over 26 months using GPS-collars. Most of the sheep monitored were seasonally migratory (79%) and showed high fidelity to winter ranges among years (88%). Use of mine properties varied seasonally, from ~10-18% during winter to peak at about 60-65% during autumn. Ewes lambed both in natural habitats and on mine properties. Fifteen winter ranges were identified, which in native habitats were typically a complex of grasslands, shrub lands, vegetated and non-vegetated rock outcrops, and cliffs. Sampling of these ranges found that standing crop production was highest in ranges with the greatest percentage cover of graminoids often dominated by rough fescue and where productive soils were prominent. High use by elk was observed on many of the ranges. Grazing was greatest on productive sites; sheep utilization declined with increasing distance from escape terrain. Three of the winter ranges are considered to be unhealthy ecologically.   Key Words: diet composition, forage composition, habitat selection, range condition, survival   INTRODUCTION  Winter is a critical season for most mountain ungulates (Parker et al. 1984, Daily and Hobbs 1989, Pauley et al. 1993), which use a variety of strategies to cope with burial of preferred forage and increased cost of locomotion in snow (Forsyth 2000, Apps et al. 2001, Poole et al. 2009). 2  Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis canadensis) inhabit the east side of the Elk Valley in southeastern British Columbia where forestry and 4 large, open-pit coal mines are in operation. Sheep in this area generally winter at high elevation on windswept, south-facing native grasslands, with some sheep also wintering on mine properties. Low elevation grassland winter ranges do not exist for bighorn sheep within the Elk Valley due to high snow accumulations. Expansion of coal mining is proposed in portions of the valley which may result in direct loss of high-elevation winter habitat. Winter range may be the single most important factor limiting sheep populations in the area (Demarchi et al. 2000). Here, two concurrent studies describe seasonal movements, winter range habitat selection, and use of mine properties by this population, as well as winter range plant communities and plant production, range condition, and winter diet.   METHODS  Ecology and movements  We deployed 39 GPS collars on bighorn sheep within an approximately 830 km2 study area in late February 2009, spreading capture effort throughout our areas of interest (Fig. 1). Nearly equal numbers of ewes and rams were collared. An additional 11 sheep were collared during the study to replace dropped collars and mortalities. Collars were set to a 10-hour fix rate (2.4 locations/day) to allow >2 years of monitoring (2 full winters).                     Figure 1. The Elk Valley bighorn sheep study area in southeastern British Columbia, 2009 to 2011. The collaring study occurred largely within the dashed polygon; the winter range ecology study occurred north of the solid line.   To examine survival rates of sheep we used the staggered entry Kaplan-Meier survival estimator, calculated in program Ecological Methodology version 6.1 (Krebs 1999, Kenney and Krebs 2002). We used changes in movement rates, elevation, and spatial distribution to define 4 broad seasons, with a focus on use of winter range and comparisons with summer range distribution. To determine seasonal ranges we calculated 90% and 50% fixed kernels (Girard et al. 2002) using the Home Range Extension (Rodgers and Carr 1998) for ArcView. We assumed that migration occurred if winter and summer ranges did not overlap (Nicholson et al. 1997, Mysterud 1999) or if winter range encompassed <10% of summer range; we termed these sheep ?migratory?. We termed sheep that did not migrate as ?non-migratory?.  We used a 2-stage approach to examine habitat selection, by first modelling individuals using Resource Selection Function analysis (multivariate logistic regression) and then by averaging parameter estimates across individuals. We examined resource selection at 2 scales: winter use to home range and within the winter range. We examined winter range selection at the home range scale (winter range use compared to random points within the home range) ? assuming sheep winter where they choose within their home range ? and selection at the winter range scale (winter range use compared with random points within the winter range) (3rd order selection; Johnson 1980); with both resource use and availability identified by individual (type III study design; Manly et al. 2002). Following suggestions by Anderson and Burnham (2002), we assessed the strength of competing models using Akaike?s Information Criteria (AIC) values; (Anderson et al. 2000), differences in AIC values (?AIC), and Akaike weights (w). We calculated AIC weights for each variable to compare relative strength among variables (Burnham and Anderson 2002). Coefficients were weighted by w across all candidate models. We also calculated standardized coefficients that reflect the relative magnitude of each variable for each sheep, and the relative importance (RI) of individual variables based on AIC weights.  We identified the lambing site for each female using changes in movement rates and spatial localization within the broader lambing period (early May to mid-June; cf Vore and Schmidt 2001, Poole et al. 2007).  Winter range descriptions  The winter ranges were delineated on field maps and preferred-habitat transects/multi-plots were located in predetermined priority winter ranges (Fig. 2). Nested, multi-plot sampling using Daubenmire quadrats and line-intercept transects for shrub cover and was undertaken due to the need for precise measurements of habitat use and ecological range condition (Habitat Monitoring Committee 1996).  Each winter range was mapped to site series. Utilization was characterized based on site series mapping within each winter range as each ecosystem unit/preferred winter range was being inspected. The range condition rating at each transect was determined by tallying the responses to ecological range function statements and calculating a percentage of the responses based on the total value possible (British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Range 2007).  4                          Figure 2. Locations of winter ranges sampled for forage productivity and sheep diet, Elk Valley, 2009?2011.   Micro-plot (100 cm x 100 cm) sampling was used to determine herbaceous forage production (Higgins et al. 2005). Production clippings within and outside exclosures were completed in late September 2009 to assess summer use and winter forage availability as well as in May/June 2010 to assess forage use by ungulates in the fall, winter, and early spring. Five circular multi-plot pellet group sample units were established in a radiating pattern at each transect location and sampled as a relative measurement of habitat use (Luttmerding et al. 1990). Sheep winter range forage species were identified via analysis of sheep fecal pellet analysis (McDonald et al. 2005). Winter fecal pellet samples were collected in February, March and April of 2010 and 2011 at five winter ranges. Fecal pellet sampling consisted of 5 to 10 pellets, depending on pellet size selected from each of 5 to 10 pellet groups. One composite sample per winter range was collected during each sampling event and submitted to the Wildlife Habitat Laboratory at Washington State University to estimate percent diet composition.   RESULTS  We obtained ~54,000 GPS locations from 41 sheep (19 ewes, 22 rams) between March 2009 and May 2011. Winter severity differed markedly between winter 2009-10 (very low snow) and winter 2010-11 (deep snow).  Ecology and movements  Eleven sheep died during the study, 7 ewes and 4 rams. Six mortalities (5 ewes, 1 ram) were attributed to unknown natural causes, 1 ram to grizzly bear mortality, 1 ewe to wolf mortality, and 2 rams to starvation. Only 1 human-related mortality occurred, related to a vehicle strike on the Line Creek canyon road. Six of the mortalities occurred on mine properties. Survival of collared sheep dropped from 0.93 (annual rate) during the first year to 0.78 during the second, more severe winter.   Winter range size did not differ between sexes (90% ranges, t < 1.37, P > 0.18), but was roughly one-third the size during winter 2010-11 (3.2 km2) compared with winter 2009-10 (9.5 km2) (t = 2.59, P = 0.01). Most (79%) of the sheep monitored for a summer to winter season were migratory (non-overlapping seasonal ranges; both years considered; n = 53 sheep-years), and all non-migratory sheep ? mostly ewes ? were associated with the northern 2 adjacent coal operations. Fidelity to winter ranges among years was high and equal between sexes (88%); some segregation of ranges between sexes was apparent. Although differences among individuals and mine areas were apparent, use of mine properties by the population varied seasonally, and showed low use (~10-18%) between November-December and April, followed by increased use to peak at about 60-65% in September to early October (Fig. 3).     6                  Figure 3. Proportion (%) use of mine properties by collared bighorn sheep ewes and rams in the Elk Valley, British Columbia, March 2009 ? May 2011. Data summed by week.  Resource selection  Winter resource selection at both scales was dominated by topographic variables, and less so by land cover class variables. At both scales, wintering sheep were positively associated with moderate to high elevations, shorter distance to escape terrain (?37? (75%) slope), higher solar duration (warmer aspects), and high elevation grasslands. Terrain ruggedness did not factor as a strong and consistent variable. Selection of topographic and land cover variables differed little between sexes. We used 2006-11 mine and government census data for independent model validation, and found the fit of winter range models was very high (rs = 1.00). Sheep wintering areas on mine properties occurred on average 300 m lower in elevation, further from escape terrain, and on less steep slopes and cooler aspects than sheep wintering on native ranges. On mine property during winter, sheep primarily used reclaimed habitats and spoils, with lower use of pits and highwalls.  Lambing areas  We identified lambing areas using collar data from 18 ewes and 31 ewe-years. Median date of lambing was 19 May in 2009 and 26 May in 2010. Of 31 lambing areas, 14 were on active mine properties of the 3 northern mines. Fidelity to lambing areas was high. When compared to natural habitats, lambing areas on mine properties were at significantly lower elevations, on shallower slopes, further from escape terrain, and with lower proportions of conifer, shrub, both types of grasslands, and rock-rubble, and higher proportions of industrial. Ewes that lambed in natural areas selected more strongly for higher solar duration, shorter distance to escape terrain, less 010203040506070Proportion (%) of locations on mine propertyEwesRamsproportion of conifer cover, and higher proportion of high-elevation grasslands than ewes that lambed in mine areas.  Winter range habitat descriptions and ecological health  The winter ranges were dominated by the Rough Fescue ? Silky Lupine (82) site series (ecosystem) with the Idaho Fescue ? Strawberry (83) as a co-dominant ecosystem. The Mountain Avens ? Sandwort ? Lichen (ME01) and Mountain Avens (RO13) ecosystems were more common at higher elevations in the Engelmann Spruce Subalpine Fir dry cool parkland (ESSFdkp) while the Saskatoon ? Pinegrass (84) and Oatgrass ? Dwarf Blueberry (84) site series were more common at lower elevations of the Engelmann Spruce Subalpine Fir dry cool woodland (ESSFdkw) and Engelmann Spruce Subalpine Fir dry cool (ESSFdk1). Inclusions of sparsely vegetated ecosystems (i.e., Cliff [CL], Rock Outcrop [RO], and Talus [TA]) were common throughout the winter ranges.  Each of the winter ranges were assigned an overall ecological range condition rating based on the British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Range Uplands Function Checklist. Fourteen of the 19 winter ranges were rated properly functioning while four were considered slightly at risk and one was considered moderately at risk. The most common criteria for down-weighting of the rating categories were (1) low or reduced litter cover, (2) lack of vegetation cover, (3) poor vegetation vigor, (4) limited seedling recruitment or recruitment by invasive or ruderal species, and (5) erosion and mass wasting.  Winter range production  Standing crop production ranged from a low of 54.6 kg/ha at the Brownie Ridge winter range (Fig. 2: BR) to a high of 1284.2 kg/ha at the upper Sheep Mountain (SMA) winter range. The differences between inside and outside exclosure values were greatest at the Bald Mountain (BM), Castle Mountain (CMA and CMB), Chauncey Ridge (CHR), Mount Banner/Long Ridge (BLR), and Turnbull Mountain winter ranges (TSW, TSC, TSE). The values for grass production were similar to the overall standing crop production values. Standing crop production was greatest for the Rough Fescue ? Silky Lupine (82) (658.9 ? 45.36 kg/ha) site series and lowest for the Mountain Avens ? Sandwort ? Lichen (ME01) (193.5 ? 54.39 kg/ha) site series. Mean forage production was greatest at the Sheep Mountain (623.6 ? 70.72 kg/ha), Imperial Ridge (IR; 315.9 ? 82.59 kg/ha), and Elk Ridge (ELR; 453.4 ? 41.38 kg/ha) winter ranges, and lowest at the Mount Banner/Long Ridge (17.2 ? 6.15 kg/ha) and Turnbull South East (TSE; 137.2 ? 36.12 kg/ha) winter ranges.  Forage utilization  Utilization was characterized based on site series mapping within each winter range as each ecosystem unit/preferred winter range was being inspected. In general, the Rough Fescue ? Silky Lupine (82) site series is subjected to moderate to heavy grazing pressure while the Idaho Fescue 8  ? Strawberry (83) site series is typically subjected to moderate grazing pressure with occasionally heavy grazing. The Mountain Avens ? Sandwort ? Lichen (ME01) site series is subjected to light to moderate grazing while the Saskatoon ? Pinegrass (84) has light grazing typically. Rock Outcrops (RO) and Cliffs (CL) generally did not have signs of forage utilization although there were often pellet groups and bedding sites on the rock outcrops. Proximity to cliffs, rock outcrops, and forest stands appears to influence forage utilization.  Diet composition (fecal pellet analysis)  Diet composition analyses were conducted on composite samples collected at the Gill Peak (GP), Mount Banner/Long Ridge, Sheep Mountain, Todhunter Ridge (TR), and Turnbull South Centre (TSC) winter ranges during February, March, and April of 2010 and 2011. At least 26 species/plant groups were observed through microscopic examination of the fecal pellets. Four grasses, one sedge, one rush, 17 forbs, three shrubs, one tree, one moss, and one lichen were observed within the fecal assessment process. Grasses and sedges/rushes comprised the greatest proportion of the diet composition at each winter range. The dominant grass species/genera observed in the fecal pellets were rough fescue (Festuca campestris), slender wheatgrass (Elymus trachycaulus), bluegrasses (Poa spp.), Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), spiked woodrush (Luzula spicata), and sedges (Carex spp.). Rough fescue consumption declined between 2010 and 2011 while sedge proportion increased and bluegrass and slender wheatgrass consumption remained constant. In general, the percent composition of grasses declined from 2010 to 2011 while sedge and forb composition increased. The proportion of grasses in the fecal pellets decreased from February to April in both years.  DISCUSSION  Bighorn sheep in the Elk Valley utilize a range of natural and mine-altered habitats to varying degrees at different times of the year, but winter primarily on high-elevation grasslands and to a lesser degree on mine properties. Use of mine properties by this population is high during the growing season, which may have contributed to the observed population increases over the past 2 decades, likely aided in large part through reclamation and re-vegetation. Individual variability in habitat use and selection was evident, but differences in habitat selection between sexes were not pronounced. Ewes lambed in both mine-altered and natural habitats. Winter was undoubtedly a critical season for sheep survival, as indicated by the average 80 ha core winter range size observed during the more severe winter of 2010-11 (as compared to average 230 ha during the previous winter) and higher numbers of mortalities during that season.  To examine the relative importance of winter ranges within the study area, we mapped the boundaries of winter distribution of sheep and summed observed sheep numbers within each range. This examination used collar locations as well as the 2010 and 2011 government surveys and the 2009?2011 Teck Coal surveys (L. Amos, Teck Coal, unpubl. data). We identified 29.3 km2 of habitat used by sheep during winter among 15 areas, approximately 22.6 km2 of which ? 13 ranges ? could be considered core winter range (Fig. 4). These core ranges comprise approximately 2.7% of the study area (4.3% of the merged annual sheep ranges), emphasizing the limited amount of suitable winter ranges within the landscape.   The majority of core winter ranges are currently intact without major developments. Reclamation on mine properties can provide high quality forage during summer (MacCallum and Geist 1992), which in all likelihood affects overwinter survival and fecundity (Parker et al. 2009), and has likely contributed to the increase in the population over the past 2 decades. However, high fidelity to winter ranges and the apparent influence of winter severity on survival suggest that disturbance to native winter range resulting from development should be minimized or be conducted in a manner that effectively manages and/or mitigates the impacts.                    Figure 4. Bighorn sheep winter ranges as mapped from collar data 2009-11, 2010 and 2011 government survey data, and 2009?2011 Teck Coal survey data, Elk Valley East, British Columbia.  The winter ranges are dominated by the Rough Fescue ? Silky Lupine (82) site series (ecosystem) with the Idaho Fescue ? Strawberry (83) as a co-dominant ecosystem. The habitat assessment demonstrates the importance of high elevation grasslands in the Elk River valley, particularly those dominated by rough fescue. Forage production is greatest within the rough fescue dominated ecosystems, the distribution of which is dictated by soil depth and soil texture. Although the proportion of rough fescue varied within and between winter ranges, the importance of rough fescue to the winter diets of bighorn sheep cannot be understated although sedges take on a more prominent role in harsh winters ? likely because of their growth in more exposed windswept environments where snow depths are less.  10  The majority of the winter ranges were rated as properly functioning. Ecological health is poorest in winter ranges where grazing pressure by elk and bighorn sheep overlap significantly and elk use is highest, and where utilization transcends multiple seasons. Stocking rates of ungulates on some winter ranges may currently be too high to maintain them in proper functioning condition, and recovery of at risk ranges may require a reduction in grazing pressure by both sheep and elk.  Winter forage availability is influenced by snow cover and depth. Microtopographic variability appears to be an important influence on the availability of forage in high snow cover years; the importance of graminoid-dominated mounds and rock outcrops is high during harsh winters.  ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS  This study was a joint effort developed through Teck Coal and BC Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO). Teck Coal, BC FLNRO, and the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation (HCTF) provided primary funding for this project, with additional funding from The Wild Sheep Society. Teck Coal and BC FLNRO provided much in-kind support. Bighorn Helicopters and Ascent Helicopters expertly conducted aerial captures and surveys, established forage production exclosures, and provided access to winter ranges for summer and winter habitat sampling, while BearAir carried out telemetry flights. We thank the numerous field assistants who participated in the project; H. Schwantje (BC FLNRO) provided exceptional veterinarian and capture support throughout the project, and W. Burt (BC FLNRO) skillfully conducted the GIS analyses and extractions, and map production.  REFERENCES  Anderson, D.R., and K.P. Burnham. 2002. Avoiding pitfalls when using information?theoretic methods. Journal of Wildlife Management 66:912?918.  Anderson, D.R., K.P. Burnham, and W.L. Thompson. 2000. Null hypothesis testing: problems, prevalence, and an alternative. Journal of Wildlife Management 64:912?923.  Apps, C.D., B.N. McLellan, T.A. Kinley, and J.P. Flaa. 2001. Scale-dependent habitat selection by mountain caribou, Columbia Mountains, British Columbia. Journal of Wildlife Management 65:65?77.  British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Range. 2007. Rangeland Health Field Guide. Range Branch, Ministry of Forest and Range, Victoria. 153 pp.  Burnham, K.P., and D.R. Anderson. 2002. Model selection and multimodel inference: A practical information-theoretic approach. 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