We compared habitat use, forage characteristics, and group size among preparturient, parturient, and nonparturient female caribou (Rangifer tarandus) during and after the birthing season to test hypotheses involving acquisition of forage and risk of predation. We monitored 39 radiocollared females from the Mentasta caribou herd, Alaska, in 1994 and 40 animals in 1995. Group size of females giving birth at higher elevations was smaller (P < 0.01) than females without young that occurred at lower elevations at peak parturition; that difference did not persist into post parturition (P > 0.5). During peak parturition, females with young used sites with fewer predators (P < 0.05), a lower abundance of forage (P < 0.05), but with variable forage quality compared with those sites used by females without young. We hypothesized that parturient females used birth sites that lowered risk of predation, and traded-off forage abundance for increased safety. Nonetheless, few differences existed between parturient and nonparturient females in composition of diet or in indices of diet quality; we could not demonstrate a nutritional cost to maternal females from our analyses. We suggest that increasing population density might intensify intraspecific competition among females for birth sites, and thereby increase nutritional costs of using high-elevation areas with less forage but fewer predators.
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Habitat use by female caribou: Tradeoffs associated with parturition