The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) and the Enhanced Vegetation Index (EVI) have gained considerable attention in ecological research and management as proxies for landscape-scale vegetation quantity and quality. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), these indices are especially important for mapping spatiotemporal variation in the forage available to migratory elk (Cervus elaphus
). Here, we examined how the accuracy of using MODIS-derived NDVI and EVI as proxies for forage biomass and quality differed across elevation-related phenology and land use gradients, determined if polynomial NDVI/EVI, site, and season effects improved these models, and then mapped spatiotemporal variation in the abundance of high quality forage available to elk across the Upper Yellowstone River Basin (UYRB) of the GYE. Models with a polynomial NDVI effect explained 19%–55% more variation in biomass than the linear NDVI and EVI models. Models with linear season effect explained 14%–20% more variation in chlorophyll, 37%–69% more variation in crude protein, and 26%–50% more variation in in vitro
dry matter digestibility (IVDMD) than the linear NDVI and EVI models. Linear NDVI models explained more variation in biomass and quality across the UYRB than the linear EVI models. The accuracy of these models was lowest in grasslands with late onset of growth, in irrigated agriculture, and after the peak in biomass. Forage biomass and quality varied across the elevation-related phenology and land use gradients in the UYRB throughout the season. At their seasonal peak, the abundance of high quality forage for elk was 50% greater in grasslands with late onset of growth and 200% greater in irrigated agriculture than in all other grasslands, suggesting that these grasslands play an especially important role in the movement and fitness of migratory elk. These results provide novel information on the utility of NDVI and EVI for mapping spatiotemporal patterns of forage biomass and quality.
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