Lichens are an important winter forage for large, migratory herds of caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) that can influence population dynamics through effects on body condition and in turn calf recruitment and survival. We investigated the vegetative and physiographic characteristics of winter range of the Western Arctic Herd in northwest Alaska, one of the largest caribou herds in North America. We made 3 broad comparisons: habitats used by caribou versus random locations, burned versus unburned habitats, and habitats within the current winter range versus those in the historic winter range and potential winter ranges. We found that lichen abundance was more than 3 times greater at locations used by caribou than found at random. The current winter range does not appear to be overgrazed as a whole, but continued high grazing pressure and consequences of climate change on plant community structure might degrade its condition. Within the current winter range, lichen abundance was more than 4 times greater at unburned locations than at recently (< 58 y) burned locations. Other than lichen abundance, there were few vegetative differences between burned (mean = 37 ± 1.7 y) and unburned locations. The historic winter range has low lichen abundance, likely due to sustained grazing pressure exerted by the herd, which suggests that range deterioration can lead to range shifts. Recovery of this range may be slowed by continued grazing and trampling during migration of caribou to and from their current winter range, as well as by high wildfire frequency and other consequences of climate change. The area identified as potential winter range is unlikely to be utilized regularly by large numbers of caribou primarily due to low lichen abundance associated with extensive deciduous stands, large areas of riparian habitat, high moose (Alces alces) densities, and greater prevalence of wildfire. Our results suggest that lichens are important in the overwintering ecology of caribou that face the energetic costs of predator avoidance and migration.
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