In seasonally varying environments, animals should alter habitat selection through time to avoid the harshest conditions. Winter severity is limiting for many ungulates in high-latitude ecosystems, and quality of habitat is an important determinant of winter survival. Previous studies in Southeast Alaska indicated that Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis) selected old-growth forest that provides both snow interception and forage, but with great variability among studies, years, and geographic areas. Clearcut timber harvest has greatly reduced the extent and quality of old-growth forest. The value of 2nd-growth and old-growth forest types to deer likely depends on snow depth, which is highly variable in space and time. We measured selection for vegetation classes, landscape features, and forage biomass by monitoring 56 GPS-radiocollared adult female deer from 1 January to 1 April between 2011 and 2013. Simultaneously, we measured snow depth across deer home ranges daily. We determined that snow depth had a strong effect on selection for vegetation classes. During periods of low snow, deer selected young 2nd growth but avoided old 2nd growth and high-volume old growth. As snow depths increased, young 2nd growth was avoided and deer selected old 2nd-growth and productive old-growth forests. The composition of vegetation classes within the landscape influenced selection, with deer selecting locally abundant habitats. These behaviors suggest that the widespread distribution of forest patches that provide snow interception and forage biomass may be critical to fulfilling the energetic requirements of deer during winters with snow. Such context-dependent habitat selection is likely widespread among wildlife species in variable environments and should be incorporated into study design and analysis.
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Vol. 98 • No. 1