Thresholds in landscape connectivity and mortality risks in response to growing road networks.
The ecological footprint of a road may extend for several kilometres with overlapping effects from neighbouring roads causing a nonlinear accumulation of road effects in the landscape. Availability of preferred habitat, spatial dependencies between roads and habitat types, and fidelity to traditionally used areas further confound our ability to predict population-level responses of animals to growing road networks. To isolate these effects, we developed an individually based movement model using elk Cervus elaphus L. as a model system. Empirically derived movement rules redistributed elk under different amounts of preferred habitat (clearcuts), road densities, and road development schemes. We tracked potential mortality risk (given time spent near roads) and emigration rates (given declining accessibility of foraging habitat). Design of the road network accounted for up to 30-55% difference in mortality risk and emigration rates, with the largest differences occurring at intermediate road densities (1-1.5 km km-2) when road effects began to saturate the landscape. Maintaining roads in association with clearcuts caused a decline in habitat accessibility equivalent to replacing 50-75% of these foraging patches with conifer forest. A nine-fold difference in potential emigration was observed after varying elk tolerance for declining habitat accessibility despite holding local movement biases constant. Elk responses to growing road networks were non-linear, exposing thresholds for road density that were reflected in the home range occupancy patterns of a large sample of elk in the region. Synthesis and applications. Our approach provides a means of scaling-up complex movement decisions to population-level redistribution, separating the confounding effects of landscape context from road effects, and exposing thresholds in connectivity and mortality risks for wildlife caused by infrastructure growth. Our model indicated that road densities ≤0.5 km km-2 yielded the highest probability of elk occurrence where elk were hunted (and sensitive to roads), but disassociating roads from foraging habitats or managing human access to roads may maintain effective elk habitat at substantially higher road densities.