An analysis of spatial and genetic population structure in white-tailed deer with implications for management
Comer, Christopher Eden
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Recently proposed models describing white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) social ecology have been used as the basis for management strategies. Population expansion models describe the formation of persistent matrilineal social groups among female deer, with limited dispersal of young females. The localized management concept proposes that removal of social groups will produce persistent areas of reduced deer density due to social restrictions on colonization of new habitats by females. However, this species exhibits a remarkable degree of behavioral plasticity in response to varying conditions and the social behaviors underlying localized management have been tested only in a limited range of habitats and locations. I evaluated the potential for localized management to reduce the incidence of deer-vehicle collisions in a low density, intensively managed deer population on the Savannah River Site (SRS) in the upper Coastal Plain of South Carolina. Based on radiotelemetry data collected for 17 female deer in combination with genotype data for 38 females at 14 microsatellite DNA loci, I determined that female deer at the SRS did not form the cohesive, persistent social groups described by the population expansion models. Dispersal rates of female deer also appeared greater than rates reported in other populations. I used microsatellite DNA analysis of nearly 2400 individuals to show that deer at the SRS exhibited little genetic structure across the 800-km study site, in contrast to previous investigations showing genetic structure at state or regional scales. Tests of dispersal also suggested high rates of female-mediated gene flow. I also conducted a field test of the localized management concept by implementing removal actions in 4 corridors surrounding major roadways. Genetic analyses indicated that, in contrast to previous tests of the concept, removal corridors did not form genetically distinct subpopulations. The removal actions were effective in reducing population density in the road corridors in the short term; however, the persistence of these reductions is uncertain. Management history, especially the high doe harvest, of the SRS population provided a logical explanation for my observations. Overall, the results of the study do not support the universal applicability of the studied models of deer social ecology and of the localized management concept.