Seasonal Variation in Habitat Selection by Free-Ranging Feral Horses Within Alberta's Forest Reserve

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Abstract

Little is known about habitat selection by free-ranging feral horses in Montane environments, including how horse use may vary seasonally throughout the year. We tracked four global positioning system collared horses in four separate harems between November 2008 and October 2010 for a portion of the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve in southwest Alberta, Canada. We assessed seasonal habitat selection for the study period by combining locational data with landscape data (including vegetation types) in an information theoretic framework. Home ranges for horses varied from 12.4 to 90 km2 and were confined to local watersheds. Horses selected most for lowland grasslands across all seasons, with shrublands increasingly selected in spring and summer. Harvested conifer forests were only selected by horses during winter. Resource selection functions indicated that in addition to vegetation type, horses were selecting for a variety of habitat characteristics (i.e., distance to forest and solar radiation), while water availability, topographic accessibility, and disturbance features (e.g., distance to roads, recreational trails, and seismic lines associated with energy exploration) had little or no influence on horse selection. Overall, horses demonstrated selection for habitats covering 14% of the study area while avoiding 42% of habitats: remaining areas were used in proportion to their availability. Concentration of horse use within sparse vegetation types (grassland and shrubland), particularly during one or more times of the year, help identify critical horse habitat including areas where multiple, overlapping land uses interact on public land.

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