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Impacts of Breeder Loss on Social Structure, Reproduction, and Population Growth in a Social Canid

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  1. The importance of individuals to the dynamics of populations may depend on reproductive status, especially for species with complex social structure. Loss of reproductive individuals in socially complex species could disproportionately affect population dynamics by destabilizing social structure and reducing population growth. Alternatively, compensatory mechanisms such as rapid replacement of breeders may result in little disruption. The impact of breeder loss on the population dynamics of social species remains poorly understood.
  2. We evaluated the effect of breeder loss on social stability, recruitment and population growth of grey wolves (Canis lupus) in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska using a 26-year dataset of 387 radiocollared wolves. Harvest of breeding wolves is a highly contentious conservation and management issue worldwide, with unknown population-level consequences.
  3. Breeder loss preceded 77% of cases (n = 53) of pack dissolution from 1986 to 2012. Packs were more likely to dissolve if a female or both breeders were lost and pack size was small. Harvest of breeders increased the probability of pack dissolution, likely because the timing of harvest coincided with the breeding season of wolves. Rates of denning and successful recruitment were uniformly high for packs that did not experience breeder loss; however, packs that lost breeders exhibited lower denning and recruitment rates. Breeder mortality and pack dissolution had no significant effects on immediate or longer term population dynamics.
  4. Our results indicate the importance of breeding individuals is context dependent. The impact of breeder loss on social group persistence, reproduction and population growth may be greatest when average group sizes are small and mortality occurs during the breeding season. This study highlights the importance of reproductive individuals in maintaining group cohesion in social species, but at the population level socially complex species may be resilient to disruption and harvest through strong compensatory mechanisms
Document: Impacts-of-Breeder-Loss-Borg_et_al-2015-Journal_of_Animal_Ecology.pdf  PDF icon

Author(s): Bridget L. Borg, Scott M. Brainerd, Thomas J. Meier and Laura R. Prugh

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