Darcy Visscher

Trade-offs between risk and reward at multiple scales: a state-dependent approach

A ubiquitous problem for all foragers is the trade-off between acquiring food energy while simultaneously avoiding the risk of predation. In central montane Alberta I modelled how ungulate forage changes with succession within cutblocks and the implications for forage availability to ungulates under current harvest regimes. Because cutblocks are discrete patches in space, I developed a dynamic state variable model for an ungulate to explore under what conditions an individual forager could (1) behaviourally avoid predation within a patch through inactivity, (2) overcome patch isolation when confronted with predation during transit between patches, and (3) alter patch use across a home range to optimize fitness. The model includes the requirement to process forage into energy through rumination behaviour that constrains foraging, and compares outcomes under a time-minimizing (sigmoid) and energy maximizing (linear) fitness functions. When an ungulate is in high energetic state, inactivity provides an effective behavioural refuge, or animals prioritize safety over energy gain, individuals avoid predation within patches reducing the need to move between patches. When energy acquisition is prioritized, individuals are at a low energetic state, or within patch anti-predator behaviours are ineffective, individuals move among patches to avoid predators in space, and configuration of the patches influences fitness. When model results were qualitatively compared to activity patterns and cutblock use of female, GPS-collared elk appear to follow a time minimizing strategy in their patch use across the home range and with their activity within riskier patches. I discuss the implications of these findings for the management of elk and cutblocks in west central Alberta.