Population Dynamics and Spatial Ecology of White-tailed Deer in the Central Appalachian Mountains of Virginia

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Virginia Tech

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are a highly charismatic game species with considerable ecological and economic impacts across most of their range. In the Central Appalachian Mountains, deer are a keystone species in forested ecosystems. Regionally, populations vary in herd growth or decline. These fluctuations are important in that they often drive many aspects of population management and regulation, which are dependent on herd demographics. Some key population vital rates allowing better understanding of these changes in white-tailed deer herds are survival, cause-specific mortality, home-range variation, both broad and fine-scale resource selection, and ultimately population growth trends in response to changes in both population vital rates and hunter harvest regulations. In this study, I address each of these concepts within a deer population in Bath County, Virginia, that has presumably been in overall decline since the early 1990's. From June-September, 2019-2020, I monitored survival and cause specific mortality of 57 neonate white-tailed deer until 12 weeks of age. Fawn and adult female survival was 0.310 (95% CI = 0.210-0.475) and 0.871 (95%CI=0.790-0.961) respectively. During the study, I observed a total of 37 fawn mortalities and identified the cause of death using field evidence and through analyzing genetics from residual predator salvia recovered on deer carcasses. Mortalities included 28 predation events and 9 deaths from other causes (e.g., abandonment, malnutrition, or disease). Black bears accounted for 48.6% of all mortality and 64.2% of known predations within our study. My top model identified elevation as a significant predictor of fawn survival, with mortality risk increasing 20% for every 100m increase in elevation. My model using observed vital rates predicted an increasing population of λ = 1.10 (interquartile range, IQR 1.06-1.14). The population was predicted to increase by 2% with a 10% increase in doe harvest (λ = 1.02, IQR = 0.97-1.06) but declined by 7% at 20% harvest (λ = 0.93, IQR = 0.89-0.96). I found that fawning home ranges of females that successfully reared fawns to the end of the season had significantly larger home ranges than those that were unsuccessful at higher elevations. Fawning home ranges for females with fawns increased approximately 71ha in size for every 100m increase in mean home range elevation, whereas seasonal home ranges of females without fawns decreased approximately 1.5 ha for every 100m increase in mean home range elevation. Deer selected fawn-rearing areas nearer to forested edges, open habitats, and at higher elevations, while they avoided areas near disturbed and mature forests. Within the fawn rearing area, females selected locations closer to disturbed forest, open habitats, and forested edge, while avoiding mature forest habitats, and higher elevations. Females selected birth sites with higher levels of visual obstruction. Using a step-selection method for real-time resource selection across biological seasons, we found that female deer selected for open areas during the fawning, breeding, early gestational, and late gestational seasons. During the fall breeding season, females avoided forested edge, but selected for areas at higher elevations. During early gestational seasons females selected disturbed habitats and areas at higher elevations while again avoiding forested edge. Overall, my work highlights variations in population dynamics of white-tailed deer in areas of the Central Appalachian Mountains that are primarily characterized by poor habitat quality and provides novel insights into fine-scale spatial ecology of female deer across biological seasons within the region. Ultimately, while the deer population in our study was not predicted to be in decline, this work supports predation risk as being a significant factor associated with habitat quality.

white-tailed deer, survival, recruitment, cause-specific mortality, resource selection, predation risk, central Appalachian Mountains, Odocoileus virginianus, home range, spatial ecology, Virginia, population dynamics