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Keywords:

  • deer;
  • harvest;
  • Odocoileus virginianus;
  • population estimate;
  • population reconstruction;
  • sex-age-kill;
  • white-tailed deer

ABSTRACT  The sex-age-kill (SAK) model is widely used to estimate abundance of harvested large mammals, including white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Despite a long history of use, few formal evaluations of SAK performance exist. We investigated how violations of the stable age distribution and stationary population assumption, changes to male or female harvest, stochastic effects (i.e., random fluctuations in recruitment and survival), and sampling efforts influenced SAK estimation. When the simulated population had a stable age distribution and λ > 1, the SAK model underestimated abundance. Conversely, when λ < 1, the SAK overestimated abundance. When changes to male harvest were introduced, SAK estimates were opposite the true population trend. In contrast, SAK estimates were robust to changes in female harvest rates. Stochastic effects caused SAK estimates to fluctuate about their equilibrium abundance, but the effect dampened as the size of the surveyed population increased. When we considered both stochastic effects and sampling error at a deer management unit scale the resultant abundance estimates were within ±121.9% of the true population level 95% of the time. These combined results demonstrate extreme sensitivity to model violations and scale of analysis. Without changes to model formulation, the SAK model will be biased when λ ≠ 1. Furthermore, any factor that alters the male harvest rate, such as changes to regulations or changes in hunter attitudes, will bias population estimates. Sex-age-kill estimates may be precise at large spatial scales, such as the state level, but less so at the individual management unit level. Alternative models, such as statistical age-at-harvest models, which require similar data types, might allow for more robust, broad-scale demographic assessments.