Estimating Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis) Abundance Using Noninvasive Sampling at a Mineral Lick within a National Park Wilderness Area

Kathryn A. Schoenecker, Mary Kay Watry, Laura E. Ellison, Michael K. Schwartz, Gordon Luikart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Conservation of species requires accurate population estimates. We used genetic markers from feces to determine bighorn sheep abundance for a herd that was hypothesized to be declining and in need of population status monitoring. We sampled from a small but accessible portion of the population's range where animals naturally congregate at a natural mineral lick to test whether we could accurately estimate population size by sampling from an area where animals concentrate. We used mark-recapture analysis to derive population estimates, and compared estimates from this smaller spatial sampling to estimates from sampling of the entire bighorn sheep range. We found that estimates were somewhat comparable; in 2009, the mineral lick sample and entire range sample differed by 20 individuals, and in 2010 they differed by only one individual. However, we captured 13 individuals in the entire range sample that were not captured at the mineral lick, and thus violated a model assumption that all individuals had an equal opportunity of being captured. This eliminated the possibility of inferring a total population estimate from just animals visiting the mineral lick, but because estimates were relatively similar, monitoring at the mineral lick can provide a useful index for management and conservation. We compared our results to a radio-collar study conducted in 2003-2004 and confirmed that the population remained stable since 2004. Our population estimates were 78 (CI 62-114) in 2009 and 95 (CI 77-131) in 2010. Between 7 and 11 sampling dates were needed to achieve a CV of 20% for population estimates, assuming a capture probability between 0.09 and 0.13. We relied on citizen science volunteers to maximize data collection and reduce costs; 71% of all fecal samples were collected by volunteers, compared to 29% collected by paid staff. We conclude that our technique provides a useful monitoring tool for managers. The technique could be tested and applied in similar populations where animals congregate with high fidelity at a mineral lick or other area.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)181-191
Number of pages11
JournalWestern North American Naturalist
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 1 2015


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