Use of fecal DNA to estimate population demographics of the Boreal and Southern Mountain ecotypes of woodland caribou

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Hettinga, Peter N.
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This study looked at the efficacy of using woodland caribou fecal pellets as a source of DNA to identify sampled animals and estimate population demographics. Fecal pellet samples were collected using systematic surveys of woodland caribou ranges in Jasper National Park, Alberta and the North Interlake region, Manitoba. Collection of pellet samples took place when snow was present to allow for tracking and location of caribou cratering areas and to obtain good quality DNA. DNA was amplified at ten polymorphic loci and one sex-specific primer. To estimate population size (N ̂) and population growth rate (λ), mark-recapture models were used. Model assumptions were evaluated and tested by stratifying available samples based on herd and gender information. In using the Mh (jackknife) model, the population sizes for south Jasper National Park were estimated at 125 animals in 2006-2007 (95% CI: 114, 143), 91 animals in 2007-2008 (95% CI: 83, 105) and 134 animals in 2008-2009 (95% CI: 123, 152); comparable to the mark-resight population estimates calculated over the same sampling periods. Genetic diversity indices for the different herds in Jasper National Park presented a lower genetic diversity for the smaller Maligne and Brazeau herds when compared to the larger Tonquin and A La Peche herds. Use of population assignment tests on samples collected in Jasper National Park indicated considerable admixture between the different herds despite earlier telemetry work demonstrating strong herd fidelity. The North Interlake population was estimated at 134 animals (95% CI: 122,151) in 2006-2007 and 106 animals (95% CI: 97, 121) in 2007-2008. Using data collected between 2005 and 2008, population growth rate for North Interlake was estimated at 0.83 (90% confidence interval: 0.65, 1.02). As a λ below 1 indicates a declining population, continue monitoring of the North Interlake herd is highly recommended. This studied clearly showed that the sampling of fecal DNA is a reliable and noninvasive alternative to monitoring woodland caribou population sizes and trends in the boreal and mountain regions.
woodland caribou, mark-recapture, Rangifer tarandus, Jasper National Park, North Interlake, noninvasive genetic sampling, population demographics