University of Alberta

Eric Neilson

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Eric Neilson - PhD Student (

Moose refuge from wolves near mines in the Athabasca oil sands

Species responses to human infrastructure and activity can vary according to their perception of humans (e.g. as a predator), habituation to human presence, the cost to other important life-history requirements and any advantages presented by association with human features. Variable species responses to humans creates prey refuges when predators are more likely to avoid human disturbance than their prey. The availability of prey refuges influences the limiting effect of predation on the abundance of prey. Therefore, investigating predator-prey space use dynamics in a system disturbed by human activity is crucial.

Predation by wolves (Canis lupus) on moose (Alces alces) limits moose population growth and has important effects on the rest of the mammal assemblage. Data collected in Alberta’s Athabasca oil sands region (AOSR) by Wildlife Habitat Effectiveness and Connectivity (WHEC) at the University of Alberta suggest that wolves are more likely to avoid mines than moose and that moose survival is higher than expected based on past work. Given that increased moose survival corresponds to the period of intensification of human footprint in AOSR, prey refuge near human disturbance may explain this change.

For my PhD research I will use WHEC’s long term data set to test the hypothesis that a prey refuge for moose exists near mines in the Athabasca Oil Sands. I will compare the distributions of moose, wolves and locations of moose killed by wolves as functions of landscape characteristics including distance to mining features.

Human disturbance can have subtle effects on predator-prey systems with consequences for species populations and ecosystems. If moose are released from predation due to reduced spatial overlap with wolves, then increased moose abundance could cause trophic cascades affecting multiple taxa and ecosystem health. If areas near mines become a source of moose population growth, moose dispersal to surrounding areas may increase wolf populations (numerical response), which could further impact vulnerable species such as woodland caribou (Rangifer terandus caribou). Understanding how human activities alter the spatial distribution and interactions of species in the heavily developed AOSR will enable industrial and government managers to understand and plan regional land use strategies accordingly.

Last Modified:2014-05-30