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Evaluation of maternal penning to improve calf survival in the Chisana Caribou Herd

September 12, 2019

Predation is a major limiting factor for most small sedentary caribou (Rangifer tarandus) populations, particularly those that are threatened or endangered across the southern extent of the species’ range. Thus, reducing predation impacts is often a management goal for improving the status of small caribou populations, and lethal predator removal is the primary approach that has been applied. Given that predator control programs are often contentious, other management options that can garner broader public acceptance need to be considered.

Substantial calf losses to predation in the few weeks following birth are common for these small caribou populations. Therefore, we employed a novel experimental approach of maternal penning with the goal of reducing early calf mortality in the Chisana Caribou Herd, a declining population in southwest Yukon and adjacent Alaska thought to number around 300 individuals. Maternal penning entailed temporarily holding pregnant females on their native range in a large pen secure from predators from late March through the initial weeks of calf rearing to mid‐June. During 2003–2006, we conducted 4 annual penning trials with 17–50 pregnant females each year (n = 146 total), assessed survival of calves born in the pens, and evaluated survival and nutritional effects of penning for females that were held. We also investigated the herd's population dynamics during 2003–2008 to determine effects of maternal penning on calf recruitment and population growth. In addition to information gained during maternal penning, we determined natality and survival patterns via radiotelemetry, conducted autumn age‐sex composition surveys each year, and censused the population in mid‐October 2003, 2005, and 2007. Based on our penning trials and demographic investigations, we used simulation models to evaluate the effects of maternal penning relative to a population's inherent growth rate (finite rate of increase [λ] without maternal penning) and penning effort (proportion of calves born in penning) to provide perspective on utility of this approach for improving the status of small imperiled caribou populations.

Pregnant females held in maternal penning tolerated captivity well in that they exhibited positive nutritional responses to ad libitum feed we provided and higher survival than free‐ranging females (0.993 and 0.951 for penned and free‐ranging females, respectively). Survival of pen calves from birth to mid‐June was substantially higher than that of free‐ranging calves ( = 0.950 and 0.376, respectively). This initial period accounted for 76% of the annual calf mortality in the free‐ranging population. Pen‐born calves maintained their survival advantage over wild‐born calves to the end of their first year ( = 0.575 and 0.192, respectively) during years penning occurred.

Females in the Chisana Herd were highly productive with 57% producing their first offspring at 2 years of age, and annual natality rates averaging 0.842 calves/female ≥2 years old. Age‐specific natality rates exceeded 0.900 for 4–9‐year‐olds, then exhibited senescent decline to 0.467 by 19 years old. Annual survival of free‐ranging adult females and calves averaged 0.892 and 0.184, respectively, over all study years; both were reduced during 2004 because of poor winter survival. We noted reduced nutritional condition of caribou late that winter in that females we captured were lighter than in other years and produced lighter calves. We suspect that the reduced survival during winter 2004 and the observed nutritional characteristics resulted from adverse snow conditions in combination with effects of the extreme drought experienced the previous summer. Age‐specific survival of adult females was ≥0.900 through 10 years of age, then declined with age.

The Chisana Herd numbered 720 caribou in mid‐October 2003, or more than twice that estimated prior to initiating maternal penning, and increased to 766 caribou by mid‐October 2007. We calculated that penning added 54.2 yearling recruits, or 40% of calves released from penning. Based on the maternal penning results and the population's vital rates, we determined that the herd would have been stable during 2003–2007 at about 713 caribou without maternal penning; thus, the increase in herd size we observed resulted from maternal penning and was equivalent to the estimate of additional yearling recruits. The improvement in the population trend invoked by maternal penning was limited by the larger than expected population size and resulting low penning effort ( = 11% of calves born in pen).

Our simulations corroborated that maternal penning increased population size by the number of additional recruits provided, even at low penning effort, for inherently stable populations. As the inherent rate of increase dropped below λ = 1.000, more of the additional recruits from penning were needed to offset the downward population inertia, thus requiring increased penning effort to reach stability. For populations declining at λ < 0.890, stability could not be achieved with 100% penning effort given the vital rates in our models.

Maternal penning in its limited application to date has proven to be broadly popular as a nonlethal management action aimed at reducing initial calf mortality from predation in small caribou populations. However, based on the Chisana program and 3 subsequent efforts elsewhere, improvement in population trends have been modest at best and come at a high financial cost. Given the necessity of maximizing penning effort, maternal penning may have a role in addressing conservation challenges for some small caribou populations that are stable or slowly declining, but its application should be primarily driven by objective assessment of the likelihood of improving population trends rather than popularity relative to other management options.

Publication Year 2019
Title Evaluation of maternal penning to improve calf survival in the Chisana Caribou Herd
DOI 10.1002/wmon.1044
Authors Layne G. Adams, Richard G. Farnell, Michelle P. Oakley, Thomas Jung, Lorne Larocque, Grant Lortie, Jamie McLelland, Mason Reid, Gretchen H. Roffler, Don Russell
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Wildlife Monographs
Index ID 70207326
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB