Shifting agriculture and a depleting aquifer: implications of row-crop farming on mule deer population performance
Context: Conversion of native vegetation to cropland is one of the most widespread anthropogenic landscape alterations, particularly in the Great Plains region of the United States. Mule deer occur throughout the Great Plains; however, it is the south-eastern edge of their geographical distribution, and few populations coincide with dense cropland. The rapidly depleting Ogallala Aquifer supplies irrigation to row-crops throughout the region, which will likely shift towards dryland agricultural practices in the near future. Aims: We sought to understand how cropland use influences morphology, body condition indices, reproductive output, and survival of free-ranging mule deer. Methods: We accumulated a multi-year, longitudinal dataset of movement and morphology for 146 mule deer in the Texas Panhandle. We linked seasonal cropland use with observed morphology, body condition metrics, and reproductive output via linear mixed-effect modelling and assessed the influence of cropland on annual survival by using Cox proportional hazard models. Key results: Mule deer that did not use cropland at any time during the year exhibited morphological and nutritional indices similar to those that did; except body-fat percentage being greater for mature (≥4-year-old) males that used cropland. Further, cropland use did not predict survival probability. Analyses of cropland use during seasons defined by life-stage showed context-dependent nutritional benefits. Use of cropland during winter following reproduction demonstrated an increase in young (≤3-year-old) male antler size and body mass and summer crop use increased body condition for all males. Female mule deer that utilised cropland before pregnancy had increased probability of successful reproduction, demonstrating a potential capital investment strategy in reproduction. Conclusions: Cropland does not limit morphology or survival of mule deer; however, additive use of row-crops can provide a nutritional buffer and enhanced reproductive output for individuals that choose to utilise it. Implications: Our study demonstrates important population-level interactions with the environment for a species near the extent of their geographical distribution. Conversion of row-crop farming from aquifer depletion or climate shifts may not diminish mule deer populations, but these changes may alter specific habitat-nutritional health relationships that can influence population performance and future conservation efforts.