Anthony Asselin
Master student
Department of Biology
Laval University

Supervised by:

Steeve Côté (Regular member)

Research project description

Use and selection of migratory caribou's wintering areas

Introduction: Most caribou populations in North America and reindeer herds in Europe are declining. In northern Quebec and Labrador, the Rivière-aux-Feuilles and Rivière-George migratory caribou herds are no exception, having experienced population declines of ca. 70 and 99%, respectively, over the past two and three decades. To reverse the decline of animal populations, one of the main targets of management and conservation plans is habitat protection. In the case of migratory caribou, winter habitat use is critical because it impacts survival, reproductive success and thereby herd population dynamics. Nonetheless, the location of wintering areas varies annually and current knowledge on factors influencing habitat selection during this season is incomplete.Objectives: Our general objective is to identify the determinants of habitat selection and the role of social factors in the use of wintering areas by Rivière-aux-Feuilles and Rivière-George herds. This objective is broken down in four sub-objectives: 1.Delineate the annual wintering areas from 1991 to 2023 for each of the two herds. 2.Evaluate which factors determine habitat selection at the level of the population wintering areas and at the level of individual sites. 3.Evaluate the fidelity of individuals to wintering areas. 4.Assess the maintenance of social dyads (pairs of individuals) between wintering and summering areas.Study sites: The study area is located north of the 51st parallel in Quebec and Labrador, Canada. This vast region historically occupied by the Rivière-aux-Feuilles and Rivière-George herds represents an area of approximately 1 000 000 km2. Although highly variable over time, wintering areas are generally found south of the migratory caribou distribution, below the tree line. Wintering areas are mostly composed of lichen spruce and forest tundra and are used from November to March. From May to September, the herds spend the summer north of the study area in a habitat dominated by arctic tundra, where females calve, and individuals accumulate body reserves before the next winter.Material and methods: Since 1986 and 1991 respectively, individuals from the Rivière-George and Rivière-aux-Feuilles herds have been tracked by satellite telemetry. A total of 1,208 individuals have been captured since the beginning of the program, and the locations of 3,106 individual-years have been collected by satellite collars. We will use these data to answer our four specific objectives.Expected results: This study will define the wintering areas of migratory caribou in eastern Canada and evaluate the main factors influencing their selection at the individual and population levels. We will also assess the implications of the high sociality of caribou in habitat use. Our study will fill a knowledge gap and guide implementation of measures aimed at protecting the habitat used during winter by the migratory caribou, a critical period in the life cycle of this species. These results are essential to ensure the maintenance of the Rivière-aux-Feuilles and Rivière-George herds, which represent a major challenge for conservation.

Research Site Coordinates

Scientific Communications

Asselin, A., Hénault-Richard, J., Taillon, J., Hamel, S., Côté, S.D., 2023. Utilisation et sélection des aires d’hivernage du caribou migrateur. Journée de la Recherche en Sciences et Génie, Université Laval. Québec, Québec, Canada.

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