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Estimating density for species conservation: Comparing camera trap spatial count models to genetic spatial capture-recapture models

Burgar, Joanna M., Stewart, Frances E.C., Volpe, John P., Fisher, Jason T., Burton, A. Cole
Global ecology and conservation 2018 v.15 pp. e00411
cameras, carnivores, cost effectiveness, home range, models, surveys, wildlife
Density estimation is integral to the effective conservation and management of wildlife. Camera traps in conjunction with spatial capture-recapture (SCR) models have been used to accurately and precisely estimate densities of “marked” wildlife populations comprising identifiable individuals. The emergence of spatial count (SC) models holds promise for cost-effective density estimation of “unmarked” wildlife populations when individuals are not identifiable. We evaluated model agreement, precision, and survey costs, between i) a fully marked approach using SCR models fit using non-invasive genetic data, and ii) an unmarked approach using SC models fit using camera trap data, for a recovering population of the mesocarnivore fisher (Pekania pennanti). The SCR density estimates ranged from 2.95 to 3.42 (2.18–5.19 95% BCI) fishers 100 km−2. The SC density estimates were influenced by their priors, ranging from 0.95 (0.65–2.95 95% BCI) fishers 100 km−2 for the uninformative model to 3.60 (2.01–7.55 95% BCI) fishers 100 km−2 for the model informed by prior knowledge of a 16 km2 fisher home range. We caution against using strongly informative priors but instead recommend using a range of unweighted prior knowledge. Thin detection data was problematic for both SCR and SC models, potentially producing biased low estimates. The total cost of the genetic survey ($47 610) was two-thirds of the camera trap survey ($77 080), or comparable ($75 746) if genetic sampling effort was increased to include sex and trap-behaviour covariates in SCR models. Density estimation of unmarked populations continues to be a series of trade-offs but as methods improve and integrate, so will our estimates.