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An improved understanding of ungulate population dynamics using count data: insights from western Montana

Citation

Paterson, Terrill; Proffitt, Kelly; Rotella, Jay; Garrott, Robert (2020), An improved understanding of ungulate population dynamics using count data: insights from western Montana, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.34tmpg4g4

Abstract

Understanding the dynamics of ungulate populations is critical given their ecological and economic importance. In particular, the ability to evaluate the evidence for potential drivers of variation in population trajectories is important for informed management. However, the use of age ratio data (e.g., juveniles:adult females) as an index of variation in population dynamics is hindered by a lack of statistical power and difficult interpretation. Here, we show that the use of a population model based on count, classification and harvest data can dramatically improve the understanding of ungulate population dynamics by: 1) providing estimates of vital rates (e.g., per capita recruitment and population growth) that are easier to interpret and more useful to managers than age ratios and 2) increasing the power to assess potential sources of variation in key vital rates. We used a time series of elk (Cervus canadensis) spring count and classification data (2004 to 2016) and fall harvest data from hunting districts in western Montana to construct a population model to estimate vital rates and assess evidence for an association between a series of environmental covariates and indices of predator abundance on per capita recruitment rates of elk calves. Our results suggest that per capita recruitment rates were negatively associated with cold and wet springs, and severe winters, and positively associated with summer precipitation. In contrast, an analysis of the raw age ratio data failed to detect these relationships. Our approach based on a population model provided estimates of the region-wide mean per capita recruitment rate (mean = 0.25,  90% CI = 0.21, 0.29), temporal variation in hunting-district-specific recruitment rates (minimum = 0.09; 90% CI = [0.07, 0.11], maximum = 0.43; 90% CI = [0.38, 0.48]), and annual population growth rates (minimum = 0.83; 90% CI = [0.78, 0.87], maximum = 1.20; 90% CI = [1.11, 1.29]). We recommend using routinely collected population count and classification data and a population modeling approach rather than interpreting estimated age ratios as a substantial improvement in understanding population dynamics.

Usage Notes

This file is the .rds file format, i.e., it is a list of all the separate data objects required for the model.  The list has 14 pieces (in order):

1.  counts (matrix: hunting district = rows, years = columns) = survey counts of all elk.

2.  classified (matrix: hunting district = rows, years = columns) = number classified out of total counts.

3.  class counts (array: class = dimension 1 (calves, adult females, adult males), hunting district = dimension 2, years = dimension 3) = number of animals in each class.

4.  calf.harvest (matrix: hunting district = rows, years = columns) = estimated number of calves harvested.

5.  antlerless.harvest (matrix: hunting district = rows, years = columns) = estimated number of adult females harvested.

6.  antler.harvest (matrix: hunting district = rows, years = columns) = estimated number of adult males harvested.

7-14.  covariates (matrix: hunting district = rows, years = columns) = covariates used in analysis.

Funding

Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Grant, Award: W-163-R-1