Perceptions of cattle distribution and resource conflicts are often based upon qualitative observations of cattle by managers or the general public. Such information on cattle presence and inferred habitat preferences may not reflect true habitat correlates of cattle because observations do not include any sampling design. We documented cattle presence and used presence data to model distribution of cattle with respect to landscape features on the Lincoln National Forest (LNF) of south-central New Mexico, an area of conflict with regard to cattle herbivory. We recorded cattle presence both from visual observations of cattle while conducting other research activities and from randomized pellet-group transects during the spring–autumn period when cattle grazed the high-elevation habitats. Distribution of cattle differed for several habitat variables between datasets, although distribution models from both datasets indicated that elevation, slope, distance to water and roads, and vegetation cover type most influenced cattle presence. Cattle presence was associated with a variety of cover types, and cattle were generally within 500 m of water and on slopes of < 15–20%. Observation-based models showed positive associations with open cover types, including the strongest positive association with montane meadows, the area of conflict in LNF. In contrast, transect-based models showed positive associations with more cover types (11) than did observation-based (6). Observation-based models also showed higher association with areas closer to roads. Inferred habitat preferences based on casual observations of cattle may not accurately reflect true distribution or use, as transect-based models predicted much broader distribution throughout LNF and higher overall probabilities of cattle presence. Because cattle distribution included many other vegetation cover types in addition to montane meadows, management to enhance positive correlates of cattle distribution on LNF may be useful to alter cattle distribution away from areas of perceived conflict.
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