Seasonal influence of snow conditions on Dall's sheep productivity in Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve.

Affiliation

Cosgrove CL(1), Wells J(2), Nolin AW(1)(3), Putera J(4), Prugh LR(5).
Author information:
(1)College of Earth Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, United States of America.
(2)Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Tok, AK, United States of America.
(3)Department of Geography, University of Nevada Reno, Reno, NV, United States of America.
(4)Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and Central Alaska Inventory & Monitoring Network, AK, United States of America.
(5)School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States of America.

Abstract

Dall's sheep (Ovis dalli dalli) are endemic to alpine areas of sub-Arctic and Arctic northwest America and are an ungulate species of high economic and cultural importance. Populations have historically experienced large fluctuations in size, and studies have linked population declines to decreased productivity as a consequence of late-spring snow cover. However, it is not known how the seasonality of snow accumulation and characteristics such as depth and density may affect Dall's sheep productivity. We examined relationships between snow and climate conditions and summer lamb production in Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska over a 37-year study period. To produce covariates pertaining to the quality of the snowpack, a spatially-explicit snow evolution model was forced with meteorological data from a gridded climate re-analysis from 1980 to 2017 and calibrated with ground-based snow surveys and validated by snow depth data from remote cameras. The best calibrated model produced an RMSE of 0.08 m (bias 0.06 m) for snow depth compared to the remote camera data. Observed lamb-to-ewe ratios from 19 summers of survey data were regressed against seasonally aggregated modelled snow and climate properties from the preceding snow season. We found that a multiple regression model of fall snow depth and fall air temperature explained 41% of the variance in lamb-to-ewe ratios (R2 = .41, F(2,38) = 14.89, p<0.001), with decreased lamb production following deep snow conditions and colder fall temperatures. Our results suggest the early establishment and persistence of challenging snow conditions is more important than snow conditions immediately prior to and during lambing. These findings may help wildlife managers to better anticipate Dall's sheep recruitment dynamics.