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Ecol Appl. 2006 Feb;16(1):285-98.

Prey risk allocation in a grazing ecosystem.

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  • 1Ecology Department, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana 59717, USA.


Understanding the behaviorally mediated indirect effects of predators in ecosystems requires knowledge of predator-prey behavioral interactions. In predator-ungulate-plant systems, empirical research quantifying how predators affect ungulate group sizes and distribution, in the context of other influential variables, is particularly needed. The risk allocation hypothesis proposes that prey behavioral responses to predation risk depend on background frequencies of exposure to risk, and it can be used to make predictions about predator-ungulate-plant interactions. We determined non-predation variables that affect elk (Cervus elaphus) group sizes and distribution on a winter range in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) using logistic and log-linear regression on surveys of 513 1-km2 areas conducted over two years. Employing model selection techniques, we evaluated risk allocation and other a priori hypotheses of elk group size and distributional responses to wolf (Canis lupus) predation risk while accounting for influential non-wolf-predation variables. We found little evidence that wolves affect elk group sizes, which were strongly influenced by habitat type and hunting by humans. Following predictions from the risk allocation hypothesis, wolves likely created a more dynamic elk distribution in areas that they frequently hunted, as elk tended to move following wolf encounters in those areas. This response should dilute elk foraging pressure on plant communities in areas where they are frequently hunted by wolves. We predict that this should decrease the spatial heterogeneity of elk impacts on grasslands in areas that wolves frequently hunt. We also predict that this should decrease browsing pressure on heavily browsed woody plant stands in certain areas, which is supported by recent research in the GYE.

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