Responses of Mule Deer, Elk, Black Bear, and Mountain Lion to Forest Restoration in New Mexico

Cooperative Research Unit Corner

Responses of Mule Deer, Elk, Black Bear, and Mountain Lion to Forest Restoration in New Mexico

Decades of fire suppression, logging, and overgrazing have resulted in increased densities of small trees in southwestern ponderosa pine forests. These changes in forest structure are associated with decreases in biodiversity, reduced habitat quality for many wildlife species, a reduction in forage for ungulates, and more frequent and severe wildfires, all of which has increased the need for projects designed to restore these systems. Furthermore, considerable resources are expended each year by state and federal agencies on vegetation treatments designed specifically to improve habitat quality for game species. However, because both wildfires and vegetation treatments can result in profound changes to habitat conditions for many wildlife species, forest restoration plans should be well-designed, based on the best scientific information, and include monitoring and research programs to document the short- and long-term responses of vegetation and wildlife to forest restoration treatments. Scientists with the USGS New Mexico Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit are leading research evaluating the responses of large mammals to landscape-scale forest restoration treatments and wildfires in the Southwest Jemez Mountains in New Mexico.

 New Mexico Co-op Unit team member conducting research

The New Mexico Co-op Unit researchers will provide much needed data on wildlife responses to restoration treatments and wildfires which will contribute to development of more informed forest restoration plans in the future. This work is associated with the Southwest Jemez Mountains Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project, a long-term U.S. Forest Service effort focused on watershed and forest restoration. The researchers are monitoring mule deer, elk, black bear, and mountain lions using GPS telemetry collars, remote sensing and on-the-ground data collection relative to topography, vegetation conditions, fire history, treatment type (e.g., thinning or prescribed fire) and age, and availability and nutritional quality of key forage resources.

Movements of these animals will be analyzed to determine selection or avoidance of different restoration treatment types over time throughout the study area. Preliminary analysis of data on elk and mule deer habitat selection have been completed. Mule deer selected for areas treated with prescribed fire, particularly those areas burned within the past 1-2 years. Mule deer avoided recently thinned areas, but strongly selected for areas thinned more than 5 years prior where a significant browse component had recovered following treatments. More recent thinned areas lacked substantial browse. Elk selected for wildfire burned areas as well as thinned areas, including more recent thinned areas where only herbaceous vegetation had recovered following treatments. Black bears and mountain lions made extensive use of the entire project area; habitat selection analyses for black bears and mountain lions are in progress.

In addition to assessing responses in movements and habitat selection to landscape-scale restoration treatments, the results from this project will address essential questions related to species-specific vegetation treatments commonly used by state and federal agencies to benefit game species: (1) how long after treatments does forage quality and or quantity exceed pre-treatment levels, and (2) how long does the increase in forage quality and quantity persist in treated areas? Addressing these questions will allow more effective planning of vegetation treatments, thereby increasing the nutritional benefit for target species, and maximizing the efficient use of resources by management agencies.

A companion to the forest restoration treatments in the Southwest Jemez Mountains project is nearing completion. Researchers are concluding an investigation on resource selection and movements of mule deer and elk on the Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico. These animals were monitored for survival, movements, and habitat use. Movements of these animals will be analyzed to determine habitat selection or avoidance of different restoration treatment types over time throughout the study area. Data on forage abundance and nutritional quality were collected from 2013-2016 on the Jemez Pueblo.

The ONB features articles from Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units across the country. Working with key cooperators, including WMI, Units are leading exciting, new fish and wildlife research projects that we believe our readers will appreciate reading about. This article was prepared by James W. Cain, Assistant Unit Leader Wildlife, USGS New Mexico Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at New Mexico State University.

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Photo Credit
New Mexico Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit
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August 14, 2017