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Mark-resight and sightability modeling of a western Washington elk population


  • Associate Editor: David Forsyth


The North Cascades (Nooksack) elk (Cervus elaphus) population declined during the 1980s, prompting a closure to state and tribal hunting in 1997 and an effort to restore the herd to former abundance. In 2005, we began a study to assess the size of the elk population, judge the effectiveness of restoration efforts, and develop a practical monitoring strategy. We concurrently evaluated 2 monitoring approaches: sightability correction modeling and mark-resight modeling. We collected data during February–April helicopter surveys and fit logistic regression models to predict the sightability of elk groups based on group and environmental variables. We used an information-theoretic criterion to compare 9 models of varying complexity; the best model predicted sightability of elk groups based on 1) transformed (log2) group size, 2) forest canopy cover (%), and 3) a categorical activity variable (active vs. bedded). The sightability model indicated relatively steady and modest herd growth during 2006–2011, but estimates were less than minimum-known-alive counts. We also used the logit-normal mixed effects (LNME) mark-resight model to generate estimates of total elk population size and the sizes of the adult female and branch-antlered male subpopulations. We explored 15 LNME models to predict total population size and 12 models to predict subpopulations. Our results indicated individual heterogeneity in resighting probabilities and variation in resighting probabilities across sexes and some years. Model-averaged estimates of total population size increased from 639 (95% CI = 570–706) in spring 2006 to 1,248 (95% CI = 1,094–1,401) in 2011. We estimated the adult female subpopulation increased from 381 (95% CI = 338–424) in spring 2006 to 573 (95% CI = 507–639) by 2011. The branch-antlered male subpopulation estimates increased from 87 (95% CI = 54–119) to 180 (95% CI = 118–241) from spring 2006 to spring 2011. The LNME model estimates were greater than sightability model estimates and minimum-known-alive counts. We concluded that mark-resight performed better and was a viable approach for monitoring this small elk population and possibly others with similar characteristics (i.e., small population and landscape scales), but this approach requires periodic marking of elk; we estimated mark-resight costs would be about 40% greater than sightability model application costs. The utility of sightability-correction modeling was limited by a high proportion of groups with low detectability on our densely forested landscape. © 2012 The Wildlife Society.

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