An assessment of overwinter food limitation in a snowshoe hare population at a cyclic low
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Snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) undergo 8- to 11-year population cycles caused by direct and/or interactive effects of overwinter food shortage and predation. However, the demographic significance of food shortage during cyclic population lows remains unclear. I evaluated the importance of overwinter food limitation to the demography (numbers, age and sex ratios) of low-density hare populations during two winters in Manitoba. Also, I examined whether the hypothesized differences in demography of fed and unfed hare populations could be explained by altered movement patterns or social dynamics. Bimonthly live-trapping revealed that food failed to have a direct long-term effect on the number, or change in number, of hares estimated to be on the three supplemented areas, relative to three control areas. Modest numerical responses to supplementation tended to be short-term (i.e., restricted to winter) and related to pre-supplementation densities, with the study area characterized by the highest hare density displaying the strongest and most consistent response to added food. During winter the percentage of females was remarkably variable among study areas and time periods, but added food may have augmented slightly the proportion of females captured in traps. There tended to be slightly more juveniles on supplemented areas during winter periods, and this effect was strongest during the first winter (1991–1992). I found that immigration rates and percentage of hares that were considered to be transient animals were similar on supplemented and control areas, and that spatial distribution of radio-collared animals on versus off of study areas also was similar. Because the overall effect of food on hare populations was small and short-lived, and could be explained largely by small increases in survival and reproduction, I conclude that the study population was not subject to overwinter food limitation.
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