We studied habitat use by desert mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus eremicus) in the Sonoran Desert to understand the relative importance of vegetation, terrain characteristics, human disturbances, and water sources in determining their distribution. We located 44 radiocollared female mule deer weekly over 5 years. In spring, when water was most scarce, deer were in areas with lower elevations, shallower slopes, and greater normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) rates, when compared to random locations. Use of water developments (i.e., catchments) during spring was evident but their effect on deer distribution was small relative to other factors, and their importance varied by animal. More deer locations were recorded in areas of higher NDVI rate in spring, summer, and autumn, but they were also further from washes in autumn. The deer we monitored used lower elevations in spring and higher elevations during the rest of the year. The effect of slope was strong in all seasons. However, deer tended to select shallow slopes in spring and steep slopes during the rest of the year. Deer avoided roads in summer and autumn but were closer to them in winter. They avoided rivers or canals in summer but were closer to those features in autumn. Our results suggest that terrain characteristics in all seasons (slope and elevation), as well as forage quality in 3 of 4 seasons (as indexed by NDVI rate) were most important in determining distribution of deer. Concomitantly water catchments had a measurable, but minor, role during hot, dry conditions. We recommend investigators continue to evaluate the importance of water developments relative to other habitat factors, particularly via the use of multivariate studies, global positioning system technology, adaptive management, and temporary closure of water developments known to be used by radiocollared deer.
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