A Long-Term Assessment of the Variability in Winter Use of Dense Conifer Cover by Female White-Tailed Deer

Glenn D. DelGiudice, John R. Fieberg, Barry A. Sampson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Backgound:Long-term studies allow capture of a wide breadth of environmental variability and a broader context within which to maximize our understanding of relationships to specific aspects of wildlife behavior. The goal of our study was to improve our understanding of the biological value of dense conifer cover to deer on winter range relative to snow depth and ambient temperature.Methodology/Principal Findings:We examined variation among deer in their use of dense conifer cover during a 12-year study period as potentially influenced by winter severity and cover availability. Female deer were fitted with a mixture of very high frequency (VHF, n = 267) and Global Positioning System (GPS, n = 24) collars for monitoring use of specific cover types at the population and individual levels, respectively. We developed habitat composites for four study sites. We fit multinomial response models to VHF (daytime) data to describe population-level use patterns as a function of snow depth, ambient temperature, and cover availability. To develop alternative hypotheses regarding expected spatio-temporal patterns in the use of dense conifer cover, we considered two sets of competing sub-hypotheses. The first set addressed whether or not dense conifer cover was limiting on the four study sites. The second set considered four alternative sub-hypotheses regarding the potential influence of snow depth and ambient temperature on space use patterns. Deer use of dense conifer cover increased the most with increasing snow depth and most abruptly on the two sites where it was most available, suggestive of an energy conservation strategy. Deer use of dense cover decreased the most with decreasing temperatures on the sites where it was most available. At all four sites deer made greater daytime use (55 to >80% probability of use) of open vegetation types at the lowest daily minimum temperatures indicating the importance of thermal benefits afforded from increased exposure to solar radiation. Date-time plots of GPS data (24 hr) allowed us to explore individual diurnal and seasonal patterns of habitat use relative to changes in snow depth. There was significant among-animal variability in their propensity to be found in three density classes of conifer cover and other open types, but little difference between diurnal and nocturnal patterns of habitat use.Conclusions/Significance:Consistent with our findings reported elsewhere that snow depth has a greater impact on deer survival than ambient temperature, herein our population-level results highlight the importance of dense conifer cover as snow shelter rather than thermal cover. Collectively, our findings suggest that maximizing availability of dense conifer cover in an energetically beneficial arrangement with quality feeding sites should be a prominent component of habitat management for deer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere65368
JournalPloS one
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 13 2013


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