Aerial survey methodology for bison population estimation in Yellowstone National Park

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Abstract

I developed aerial survey methods for statistically rigorous bison population estimation in Yellowstone National Park to support sound resource management decisions and to understand bison ecology. Survey protocols, data recording procedures, a geographic framework, and seasonal stratifications were based on field observations from February 1998-September 2000. The reliability of this framework and strata were tested with long-term data from 1970-1997. I simulated different sample survey designs and compared them to high-effort censuses of well-defined large areas to evaluate effort, precision, and bias. Sample survey designs require much effort and extensive information on the current spatial distribution of bison and therefore do not offer any substantial reduction in time and effort over censuses. I conducted concurrent ground surveys, or 'double sampling' to estimate detection probability during aerial surveys. Group size distribution and habitat strongly affected detection probability. In winter, 75% of the groups and 92% of individual bison were detected on average from aircraft, while in summer, 79% of groups and 97% of individual bison were detected. I also used photography to quantify the bias due to counting large groups of bison accurately and found that undercounting increased with group size and could reach 15%. I compared survey conditions between seasons and identified optimal time windows for conducting surveys in both winter and summer. These windows account for the habitats and total area bison occupy, and group size distribution. Bison became increasingly scattered over the Yellowstone region in smaller groups and more occupied unfavorable habitats as winter progressed. Therefore, the best conditions for winter surveys occur early in the season (Dec-Jan). In summer, bison were most spatially aggregated and occurred in the largest groups by early August. Low variability between surveys and high detection probability provide population estimates with an overall coefficient of variation of approximately 8% and have high power for detecting trends in population change. I demonstrated how population estimates from winter and summer can be integrated into a comprehensive monitoring program to estimate annual growth rates, overall winter mortality, and an index of calf production, requiring about 30 hours of flight per year.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Thesis
Publication Subtype Thesis
Title Aerial survey methodology for bison population estimation in Yellowstone National Park
Year Published 2002
Language English
Publisher Montana State University
Publisher location Bozeman, MT
Contributing office(s) Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center
Description 154 p.
Public Comments A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Fish and Wildlife Management Montana State University Bozeman, Montana April 2002
Country United States
State Wyoming
Other Geospatial Yellowstone National Park
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N