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3 October 2019 Estimating sightability of greater sage-grouse at leks using an aerial infrared system and N-mixture models
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Counts of grouse present at leks (breeding grounds) during spring are widely used to monitor population numbers and assess trends. However, only a proportion of birds available to count are detected resulting in a biased population index. We designed a study using an aerial integrated infrared imaging system (AIRIS) and experimental pseudo-leks to quantify sightability (proportion of birds detected) of conventional ground-based visual (GBV) surveys for greater sage-grouse Centrocercus urophasianus. Specifically, we calibrated AIRIS at pseudo-leks composed of known numbers of captively-raised birds, primarily ring-necked pheasant Phasianus colchicus. We then carried out AIRIS and GBV surveys, simultaneously, on nearby sage-grouse leks, allowing us to model AIRIS and GBV sightability. AIRIS detected ∼93% of birds on pseudo-leks while GBV detected ∼86% of sage-grouse on leks. Thus, the ground count observation error was –14% from the ‘true' number of male sage-grouse attending the leks. We also found sagebrush cover decreased sightability for GBV counts but did not influence sightability by AIRIS. Because standard GBV protocols typically make repeated counts of sage-grouse in a single morning, we also modeled repeated GBV counts using N-mixture models and found an 88% sightability, which was nearly the same as GBV sightability from the AIRIS analysis. This suggests that the use of repeated morning counts can potentially account for imperfect detection in the standard GBV surveys currently implemented. We also provide generalized correction values that could be employed by resource managers using either GBV or AIRIS to better estimate ‘true’ numbers of sage-grouse attending leks within similar environments to this study. The findings and interpretation presented can help guide effective monitoring protocols that account for observation error and improve accuracy of data used for population trend and abundance estimation.

A primary goal in designing wildlife monitoring surveys is to develop data collection protocols capable of informing managers of changes in population abundance over time (Nichols 1991, Williams et al. 2002). Count data obtained from leks (traditional breeding grounds) of greater sage-grouse Centrocercus urophasianus (hereafter sage-grouse) have been a primary source of information used to assess population trends since the 1940s when lek monitoring first began (Patterson 1952, Connelly and Schroeder 2007). Sage-grouse numbers have declined throughout their range since the 1950s averaging an annual decrease of approximately 0.85% per year (Garton et al. 2015, WAFWA 2015). The species currently occupies roughly one half of its historic distribution (Schroeder et al. 2004), and with further habitat losses in the sagebrush biome likely in coming decades (Coates et al. 2016, Smith et al. 2016, Green et al. 2017) and upcoming consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act, improved information on populations from lek count data will be central to sage-grouse conservation.

Accordingly, accounting for intrinsic biases in count data due to observation error would improve estimation of true demographic patterns resulting from environmental change. Like many types of survey data used as population indices, lek-count data is often scrutinized as a biased representation of true population numbers (Beck and Braun 1980, Applegate 2000). Part of the uncertainty in lek-count data results from imperfect observation rates of individual grouse during conventional ground-based visual (GBV) surveys leading to variable and biased estimates. This long-recognized problem has led to several evaluations of lek counts and the factors that affect their accuracy (Fremgen et al. 2016, Baumgardt et al. 2017). Nichols et al. (2009) described four distinct components to detectability in count surveys. The first component is the probability (p) that an individual's home range overlaps the sampling unit (ps). Because the sampling unit for sage-grouse is the lek site, home ranges of all sage-grouse within those populations are assumed to intersect the lek. However, not all leks on the landscape are known and counted (Shyvers et al. 2018), so individuals associated with those leks will not be counted. A second component is the probability an individual is present at the sampling unit during the time of survey (pp). For example, individual attendance on leks can vary within mornings (Monroe et al. 2016), throughout the breeding season, and among years (Blomberg et al. 2013, Fremgen et al. 2019, Wann et al. 2019). Given the individual is present at the sampling unit, the third and fourth components are the probability of being available for detection during the count (pa, e.g. not obscured by vegetation) and probability of detection conditional on availability (pd; e.g. accurate count of unobscured individuals), respectively, and are collectively referred to as sightability (papd; Fremgen et al. 2016, Baumgardt et al. 2017). Thus, sightability can also be interpreted as the proportion of available individuals which are observed.

Infrared video-surveying is an emerging te