Rocky Mountain Carnivore Research

To study carnivore complex dynamics in the USA

 

Carnivore guilds in the Rocky Mountains are important keystone controlling agents on community-wide processes. While individual carnivore species have varying effects on other members of their guild and community across different ecological pathways, the presence of top predators like wolves (Canis lupus) can affect other carnivores and their prey, which can influence surrounding vegetation. Such dynamics are part of natural evolutionary processes in healthy functioning ecosystems, but artificial perturbations (i.e. habitat fragmentation and human activities) on carnivore guilds are expected to have more significant effects on individual populations and the community.

 

Surpisingly little is known of the carnivore complex in the southern Rocky Mountains, particularly regarding their synecological and autecological dynamics. In addition, it is broadly acknowledged within the scientific community that wolves will immigrate into the southern Rocky Mountains, including the Rocky Mountain National Park ecosystem. Evidence in the Greater Yellowstone, Northern Continental Divide and Banff ecosystems strongly suggests that such a dominant predator at the apex of the community will affect and reshape the Rocky Mountain National Park ecosystem as well. To what degree will this impact the existing ecological community, particularly other carnivores, their prey bases and, subsequently, the vegetation matrix and disturbance regimes?

 

Given high human visitation rates in Rocky Mountain National Park as well as habitat fragmentation in the region, how will these perturbations influence the carnivore-prey-vegetation dynamics once wolves are in and dispersing from the system? Conversly, to what degree will the presence and ecological effects of wolves on other carnivores and the surrounding community affect visitor experiences, local communities, and management schemes? To what degree will long-term Rocky Mountain National Park and Forest Service management plans need to be amended to account for these ecological and social issues?

 

To clarify these questions, a research project was initiated with the primary objective of improving our understanding of community ecology and dynamics relative to hierarchical structure and trophic cascades within and emanating from large and middle-sized carnivore guilds in temperate mountain ecosystems. This will allow the ability to facilitate, improve and aid the evolution of healthy populations of native species, provide rigorous scientific information for management and conservation plans, and educate the public. Methodologically, the goal of the project is to improve scientific methods for addressing single and multi-species questions via occupancy modelling and non-intrusive field techniques.

 

This study is designed to examine questions related to the influence of wolf immigration on the existing carnivore-prey-vegetation complex in the Rocky Mountains National Park ecosystem and will include pre/post wolf research on the site-occupancy and relative habitat use of various species in different habitat types as well as relative to human activities and other disturbances. Collaborative projects exist with the USFWS and others on mountain lions, black bears, and medium-sized carnivores. Due to how elusive these species are, non-intrusive methods and occupancy modelling will be employed to a) advance these methods and b) collect information via sign surveys, camera-trapping and non-tissue genetic samples (scat and hair), which cannot be gathered via telemetry or other means.

Radio and satellite telemetry are being used on mountain lions, black bears, and medium-sized carnivores to support and help advance both non-intrusive methods and telemetry. Original habitat disturbance is observed, and change is measured over time. Other species of conservation or scientific concern will be examined. Habitat assessments, including temporal and spatial changes in dominant vegetation and forage character over time, will be conducted as well. The analysis of the data will allow for an understanding of the carnivore-prey-vegetation relationship to enable management and conservations plans, educate the public and to facilitate the evolution of healthy populations of native species in the Rocky Mountains National Park ecosystem.

 

WAZA Conservation Project 07001 was implemented by the Denver Zoological Foundation, in collaboration with Rocky Mountain National Park, USFWS, USGS, Colorado State University, and University of Denver. The project ended in 2008.

 

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