Coyotes (Canis latrans) have expanded their range to the north and east in North America during the last century. It has been suggested that vegetative cover reduces hunting efficiency of forest-dwelling coyotes, which could explain their lower performance compared to rural coyotes. Also, in their northern range, coyotes must periodically cope with deep and soft snow conditions for which they are not morphologically adapted. We snow-tracked coyotes in a forested landscape of southeastern Québec to test the hypothesis that coyotes modify their hunting strategy with respect to vegetative cover, snow condition, and hare distribution (Lepus americanus), the main prey species during winter in our study area. When snow sinking depth hampered mobility, coyotes used habitats with the lowest snow sinking depth (coniferous habitats) in a greater proportion than availability (47.0 versus 29.7%), despite dense lateral cover. As a result, coyotes chased hares over short distances (17 m on average). However, when snow conditions did not hamper mobility, use of coniferous habitats decreased to 18.5% in favour of open habitats, which were used more than availability (47.7 versus 32.5%), despite low hare abundance. Use of sites with little lateral cover and low sinking depth facilitated long chases by coyotes (126 m on average). Throughout winter, coyotes used sites characterized by less lateral cover and lower snow sinking depth than random sites. Our results suggest that coyotes selectively used habitat and hunting strategy to maximize their net energy budget throughout winter. Fragmentation of forest landscapes generates abundant openings and small refuges which may benefit coyotes to the detriment of native prey populations.
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