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Motorized backcountry recreation and stress response in Mountain Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) Freeman, Nicola L.


Mountain caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are endangered in British Columbia and motorized backcountry recreation has been identified as a potential threat to their persistence. My objective was to test if fecal glucocorticoids (GCs), indicative of physiological effects of ecological stress in wildlife, could be used as a non-invasive tool to quantify stress response in free-ranging caribou exposed to motorized recreation. I validated an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) to measure concentration of fecal GCs for R. tarandus using an adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) challenge experiment on captive reindeer exposed to extreme variation in winter weather. Female reindeer expressed elevated fecal GCs 9-11 hrs after ACTH injection. Males showed no detectable increase, perhaps due to underdosing. Fecal GCs varied markedly in both sexes in response to natural variation in weather. Overall, my results indicated fecal assays can be used to track biologically meaningful changes in adrenal activity in R.tarandus. I investigated the effects of motorized recreation on stress hormone production by measuring GCs in feces of mountain caribou exposed to snowmobile and heli-ski activity. Concentrations of fecal GCs in snowmobile and heli-ski areas were higher than those measured from caribou in areas where motorized recreation was not allowed. Caribou sampled up to 4km. 8km and I0 km distant from snowmobile activity showed elevated fecal GCs when compared to those sampled further from snowmobile activity areas. Other variables with a significant effect on fecal GCs included reproductive state, snow, aspect. minimum ambient temperature, and daily temperature range. My study indicates that measurement of fecal GCs provides a useful, noninvasive approach in the evaluation of physiological effects of environment, reproductive state, and human-induced stressors on free-ranging mountain caribou. Although research on many species indicates that chronically elevated GCs carry a variety of physiological costs, more study is needed to know whether GCs can be used as an index of human impact on population health or trend.

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