We evaluated population trends in the Mentasta caribou (Rangifer tarandus (L., 1758)) herd in Wrangell a?? St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska, from 1990 to 1997 and determined factors contributing to its decline. We postulated that predation-related mortality of adult females and juveniles was the proximate cause of the decline, and that survival of juvenile caribou reflected interactions with winter severity, calving distribution, timing of births, density of caribou, and physical condition of neonates at birth. The population declined at its greatest rate from 1990 to 1993 (r = a??0.32) and at a lower rate from 1994 to 1997 (r = a??0.09). Recruitment (number of calves/100 females during September) averaged 4/100 during the rapid population decline from 1990 to 1993 and 13/100 from 1994 to 1997. Parturition rate of adult females ranged from 65% to 97%. Survival of adult females and juveniles ranged from 0.77 to 0.86 and from 0.00 to 0.22, respectively. Approximately 43%, 59%, and 79% of all juvenile mortality occurred by 1, 2, and 4 weeks of age, respectively. We confirmed predation-related mortality as the primary proximate cause of population decline, with gray wolves (Canis lupus L., 1758), bears (species of the genus Ursus L., 1758), and other predators accounting for 57%, 38%, and 5%, respectively, of all juvenile mortality, and bears causing disproportionate mortality among 0- to 1-week-old neonates. We supported the hypotheses that timing of birth and habitat conditions at the birth site, particularly mottled snow patterns, affected vulnerability and survival of neonates, and birth mass affected survival of juveniles through summer. We speculate that the population will continue to decline before reaching a low-density equilibrium that is sustained by density-dependent changes in the functional responses of predators.
Additional publication details
Demography and decline of the Mentasta Caribou Herd, Alaska