Spotlight surveys for white-tailed deer: Monitoring panacea or exercise in futility?


  • Associate Editor: Gary White


Many monitoring programs for white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) on both private and public lands across the United States have long relied on the use of road-based spotlight surveys for monitoring population size and trends. Research has suggested spotlight surveys are ineffective and that road-based surveys for deer are biased because of highly variable detection rates. To evaluate variability in detection rates relative to the assumption that repeated surveys along roads will provide reliable trend data for use in calculating deer density estimates, we collected 5 years of thermal-imager and spotlight survey data using a multiple-observer, closed-capture approach. Using a Huggin's closed capture model, data bootstrapping, and variance components analyses, our results suggest that density estimates for white-tailed deer generated from data collected during road-based spotlight surveys are likely not reflective of the standing deer population. Detection probabilities during individual spotlight surveys ranged from 0.00 to 0.80 (median = 0.45) across all surveys, and differed by observer, survey, management unit, and survey transect replicate. Mean spotlight detection probability (0.41) and process standard deviation (0.12) estimates indicated considerable variability across surveys, observers, transects, and years, which precludes the generation of a correction factor or use of spotlight data to evaluate long-term trends at any scale. Although recommended by many state, federal, and non-governmental agencies, our results suggest that the benefit of spotlight survey data for monitoring deer populations is limited and likely represents a waste of resources with no appreciable management information gained. © 2012 The Wildlife Society.