Distribution and food habits of moose, wapiti, deer, bison and snowshoe hare in Elk Island National Park, Alberta

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Elk Island National Park was found to be capable of supporting existing dense ungulate populations under present circumstances. Moose are common throughout the park at an average density of at least five per square mile (two per sq. km). They tend to select shrubland and shrub meadow habitats and feed largely on browse. Bison habitat preference is for upland grass though use of sedge and shrub meadows is also important; grasses and sedges are the chief foods. Like wapiti, and in contrast to the more solitary moose and deer, bison cows and calves generally occur in small bands or herds consisting of a few to many individuals. Wapiti use all major habitats, but select most for grassland. The major single items in their winter and spring diets are willows and sedges respectively; most studies elsewhere, however, indicate that grass is the main food except during summer when forbs become most important. Deer density in Isolation Region, like wapiti density in Main Park, averages six or more per square mile (at least two per sq. km). Management precludes any significant occupation of the former area b y wapiti, and competition apparently keeps deer numbers very low in the latter area. In spring and summer deer also favour upland grass, but more year round use is made of aspen forest and shrub meadow habitats. Sedges and grasses comprised 94% of identifiable spring foods and almost half that amount in winter though hazel, saskatoon and other browse species dominated then. Fecal analysis surprisingly showed very little use of balsam poplar by any ungulate and no use of trembling aspen. Snowshoe hare populations are greatest in the Recreation Area where there are fewest large herbivores. Oster Area, for undetermined reasons, supports dense populations of all study animals . Elsewhere, snowshoe hare numbers seem to be limited in inverse proportion to intensity of use by ungulates, with reduction of suitable habitat considered more limiting than reduction in food supply . Supplementary analyses revealed the importance of ecotones and habitat interspersion to herbivore distribution, the tendency of bison and snowshoe hare to follow existing tracks when walking in snow, and the increase in available browse when saplings or tall shrubs are broken. There is more water and much less shrub meadow in the park now than in 1948 when the first complete aerial coverage was flown. The mean snow depth at track location for deer was very little less than for moose, though all species tended to move through shallower than average snow. In contrast to yarding behaviour reported in the literature, ungulates dispersed more throughout the entire park during a severe winter compared to a mild one and to the average situation.
Bibliography: p. 126-148.
Cairns, A. L. (1976). Distribution and food habits of moose, wapiti, deer, bison and snowshoe hare in Elk Island National Park, Alberta (Master's thesis, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada). Retrieved from https://prism.ucalgary.ca. doi:10.11575/PRISM/15853