Comparing contemporary models to traditional indices to estimate abundance of desert bighorn sheep

Marcus E. Blum, Frances E. Buderman, Joe R. Bennett, Kelley M. Stewart, Mike Cox, Perry J. Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Aerial surveys for large ungulates produce count data that often underrepresent the number of animals. Errors in count data can lead to erroneous estimates of abundance if they are not addressed. Our objective was to address imperfect detection probability by developing a framework that produces realistic and defensible estimates of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) abundance. We applied our framework to a population of desert bighorn sheep (O. c. nelsoni) in the Great Basin, Nevada, USA. We captured and marked 24 desert bighorn sheep with global positioning system (GPS)-collars and then conducted helicopter surveys naïve to the locations of collared animals. We developed a Bayesian integrated data model to leverage information from telemetry data, helicopter survey counts, and habitat characteristics to estimate abundance while accounting for availability and perception probability (i.e., detection given availability). Distance to ridgeline, terrain ruggedness, tree cover, and slope influenced perception probability of sheep given they were viewable from the helicopter. There was also annual variation in perception probability (2018: median = 0.64, credible interval [CrI] = 0.37–0.87; 2019: median = 0.81, CrI = 0.49–0.97). The abundance estimates from the integrated data model decreased from 2018 (594; 95% CrI = 537–656) to 2019 (487; 95% CrI = 436–551). In addition, accounting for availability and imperfect perception resulted in greater estimates of abundance compared to traditional directed search methods, which were 340 for 2018 and 320 for 2019. Our modeling framework can be used to generate more defensible population estimates of bighorn sheep and other large mammals that have been surveyed in a similar manner.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere22517
JournalJournal of Wildlife Management
Volume88
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation

Cite this