UBC Theses and Dissertations
How are changing environmental conditions affecting barren ground caribou movement and habitat use in Canada’s north? Rickbeil, Gregory James Melville
The Arctic is currently experiencing some of the most dramatic warming effects globally due to climate change. Barren ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) herds in Canada’s north are particularly susceptible to climate change as they occupy Arctic and sub-Arctic environments and as grazers respond directly to changing vegetation conditions. Examining the associations between barren ground caribou and their environment across their entire range presents specific and substantial challenges. Large herd ranges make in-situ habitat monitoring studies difficult and expensive. Additionally, the environments barren ground caribou inhabit are extremely remote and not spatially consistent between years. As such, new techniques are required that address the large scale, remote, and temporally variable nature of these animals. Within this PhD Dissertation, I integrate newly developed remotely sensed environmental data sets with multiple caribou data sets to explore how changing environmental conditions are affecting barren-ground caribou movement and habitat use in Canada’s north. Barren ground caribou’s effects on summer range productivity were assessed to explore top down controls on vegetation productivity. Based on my results, I argue that while there is some association between barren ground caribou density and future summer range vegetation productivity, it is unlikely that range degradation is a major cause of herd declines in the herds examined here. Habitat conditions (vegetation productivity, lichen mat condition, and fire disturbance) were documented across herd ranges to assess how barren ground caribou habitat is changing through time. These habitat conditions were then linked to movement metrics derived from barren ground caribou telemetry data to assess how changing habitat conditions are affecting caribou movement patterns. I found widespread, rapid changes in barren ground caribou habitat in line with predicted and documented climate change effects in the Arctic, and I detected significant alterations in movement metrics associated with these changes in habitat. In all cases, remotely sensed environmental indicators were useful for describing aspects of barren ground caribou habitat. I was able to link habitat conditions to barren ground caribou at both the individual and herd levels and described novel linkages between barren ground caribou and their environment.
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