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Landscape-Scale Factors Affecting Feral Horse Habitat Use During Summer Within The Rocky Mountain Foothills

Girard, Tisa L., Bork, Edward W., Neilsen, Scott E., Alexander, Mike J.
Environmental management 2013 v.51 no.2 pp. 435-447
roads, summer, carrying capacity, land use, grasslands, forests, habitat preferences, forage, conifers, forest reserves, cattle, models, cutting, herbivores, travel, wildlife, public lands, probability, geographic information systems, spring, habitats, horses, Alberta
Public lands occupied by feral horses in North America are frequently managed for multiple uses with land use conflict occurring among feral horses, livestock, wildlife, and native grassland conservation. The factors affecting habitat use by horses is critical to understand where conflict may be greatest. We related horse presence and abundance to landscape attributes in a GIS to examine habitat preferences using 98 field plots sampled within a portion of the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve of SW Alberta, Canada. Horse abundance was greatest in grassland and cut block habitats, and lowest in conifer and mixedwood forest. Resource selection probability functions and count models of faecal abundance indicated that horses preferred areas closer to water, with reduced topographic ruggedness, situated farther from forests, and located farther away from primary roads and trails frequented by recreationalists, but closer to small linear features (i.e. cut lines) that may be used as beneficial travel corridors. Horse presence and abundance were closely related to cattle presence during summer, suggesting that both herbivores utilise the same habitats. Estimates of forage biomass removal (44 %) by mid-July were near maximum acceptable levels. In contrast to horse-cattle associations, horses were negatively associated with wild ungulate abundance, although the mechanism behind this remains unclear and warrants further investigation. Our results indicate that feral horses in SW Alberta exhibit complex habitat selection patterns during spring and summer, including overlap in use with livestock. This finding highlights the need to assess and manage herbivore populations consistent with rangeland carrying capacity and the maintenance of range health.