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Using Natural Pelt Patterns to Estimate Population Abundance with Mark-Resight Models

  • Author(s): Teton, Ben Scott
  • Advisor(s): Young, Hillary S
  • et al.
Abstract

Estimating population abundance through time is an essential component of wildlife conservation and management. However, accurate population monitoring can be difficult and expensive for many elusive species occurring across large, dynamic landscapes. Thus, wildlife managers require methods that accurately estimate population abundance, while also minimizing field effort and cost. We estimated abundance of invasive wild pigs (Sus scrofa) on Tejon Ranch in the Tehachapi Mountains of California, using natural markings to identify individuals for mark-resight population estimation. Wild pigs in this region, like many species not traditionally identified using natural marks, are generally homogeneous in appearance with distinctive features that range dramatically in relative visibility, uniqueness and permanence. We developed a method based on standardized thresholds of image quality and animal flank distinctiveness to account for the inherent variability of natural markings between individuals. This method was tested over a fifteen-month period between March 2015 and June 2016, using an array of 48 camera traps across a 48km² survey grid. With 18.5% of wild pigs meeting our conservative standard of identifiability, we generated absolute estimates of abundance across five consecutive three-month sampling periods using the Poisson log-normal estimator under Pollocks robust design. Using left-flank photos of both naturally marked and unmarked pigs, we generated abundance estimates ranging from 352 (SE + 56) individuals in summer 2015 to 157 (SE + 43) individuals in spring 2016. These results suggest an overall decline in the wild pig population on Tejon Ranch from 2015 to 2016, which is supported by a simultaneous decline in Ranch-wide hunter harvest totals during this period. As this mark-resight method requires no trapping or tagging of any kind, it may be utilized as a cost and resource efficient alternative to traditional mark-resight techniques that rely on ear-tags or neck-bands for individual identification of species traditionally considered unidentifiable using natural marks alone.

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