Snow affects the nutritional ecology of northern ungulates during winter through burial of important winter forages. We used nonlinear regression analyses to model snow-burial dynamics of blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) browse biomass, a key winter food item of Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitchensis) in southeastern Alaska, USA. During November 2003–March 2004 we collected data from 546 individually marked twigs located on 100 plants of differing sizes and architectures across a range of snow depths. In general, browse biomass became buried and unavailable to deer at snow depths substantially lower than prewinter twig heights. Plant architecture and plant height were related to the probability of a twig being buried. Probability of twig burial was higher on plants with lateral than on those with erect architectures. Twig height also affected the probability of burial by snow but the relationship was complex. For twigs located on erect plants, probability of burial was greatest for twigs near the bottom and top of the plant due to ground-up burial and bending of flexible apex stems, respectively. We used estimated nonlinear equations to model blueberry browse availability in a simulated upland old-growth habitat patch subject to a range of snow depths. We then compared subsequent estimates of deer winter nutritional carrying capacity for this habitat patch to findings derived using an alternative, simple linear (ground-up) model of winter-browse burial by snow. Comparisons indicated that ground-up models of browse burial overestimated browse availability and nutritional carrying capacity for most snow depths. Our findings demonstrate the importance of applying detailed snow-burial models when characterizing nutritional landscape of northern ungulates during winter.
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Vol. 73 • No. 4