Beyond the encounter: Predicting multi-predator risk to elk (Cervus canadensis) in summer using predator scats

Kara M. MacAulay, Eric G. Spilker, Jodi E. Berg, Mark Hebblewhite, Evelyn H. Merrill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations

Abstract

There is growing evidence that prey perceive the risk of predation and alter their behavior in response, resulting in changes in spatial distribution and potential fitness consequences. Previous approaches to mapping predation risk across a landscape quantify predator space use to estimate potential predator-prey encounters, yet this approach does not account for successful predator attack resulting in prey mortality. An exception is a prey kill site that reflects an encounter resulting in mortality, but obtaining information on kill sites is expensive and requires time to accumulate adequate sample sizes. We illustrate an alternative approach using predator scat locations and their contents to quantify spatial predation risk for elk (Cervus canadensis) from multiple predators in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada. We surveyed over 1300 km to detect scats of bears (Ursus arctos/U. americanus), cougars (Puma concolor), coyotes (Canis latrans), and wolves (C. lupus). To derive spatial predation risk, we combined predictions of scat-based resource selection functions (RSFs) weighted by predator abundance with predictions that a predator-specific scat in a location contained elk. We evaluated the scat-based predictions of predation risk by correlating them to predictions based on elk kill sites. We also compared scat-based predation risk on summer ranges of elk following three migratory tactics for consistency with telemetry-based metrics of predation risk and cause-specific mortality of elk. We found a strong correlation between the scat-based approach presented here and predation risk predicted by kill sites and (r =.98, p <.001). Elk migrating east of the Ya Ha Tinda winter range were exposed to the highest predation risk from cougars, resident elk summering on the Ya Ha Tinda winter range were exposed to the highest predation risk from wolves and coyotes, and elk migrating west to summer in Banff National Park were exposed to highest risk of encountering bears, but it was less likely to find elk in bear scats than in other areas. These patterns were consistent with previous estimates of spatial risk based on telemetry of collared predators and recent cause-specific mortality patterns in elk. A scat-based approach can provide a cost-efficient alternative to kill sites of quantifying broad-scale, spatial patterns in risk of predation for prey particularly in multiple predator species systems.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere8589
JournalEcology and Evolution
Volume12
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 2022

Keywords

  • Cervus canadensis
  • detection dog
  • elk
  • resource selection functions
  • scat analysis
  • spatial predation risk

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