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A framework for inference about carnivore density from unstructured spatial sampling of scat using detector dogs


  • Associate Editor: Kevin McKelvey


Wildlife management often hinges upon an accurate assessment of population density. Although undeniably useful, many of the traditional approaches to density estimation such as visual counts, livetrapping, or mark–recapture suffer from a suite of methodological and analytical weaknesses. Rare, secretive, or highly mobile species exacerbate these problems through the reality of small sample sizes and movement on and off study sites. In response to these difficulties, there is growing interest in the use of non-invasive survey techniques, which provide the opportunity to collect larger samples with minimal increases in effort, as well as the application of analytical frameworks that are not reliant on large sample size arguments. One promising survey technique, the use of scat detecting dogs, offers a greatly enhanced probability of detection while at the same time generating new difficulties with respect to non-standard survey routes, variable search intensity, and the lack of a fixed survey point for characterizing non-detection. In order to account for these issues, we modified an existing spatially explicit, capture–recapture model for camera trap data to account for variable search intensity and the lack of fixed, georeferenced trap locations. We applied this modified model to a fisher (Martes pennanti) dataset from the Sierra National Forest, California, and compared the results (12.3 fishers/100 km2) to more traditional density estimates. We then evaluated model performance using simulations at 3 levels of population density. Simulation results indicated that estimates based on the posterior mode were relatively unbiased. We believe that this approach provides a flexible analytical framework for reconciling the inconsistencies between detector dog survey data and density estimation procedures. © 2011 The Wildlife Society.