Context. Wildlife biologists accumulate large quantities of images from remote cameras, which can be time- and cost-prohibitive to archive and analyse. Remote-camera projects would benefit from not setting cameras longer than needed and not analysing more images than needed; however, there is a lack of information about optimal deployment time required for remote-camera surveys to estimate ungulate abundance.
Aims. The objective was to estimate abundance of adult females in a population of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis canadensis) in Utah, USA, from 2012 to 2014, and determine whether this type of study can be conducted more efficiently. Because females are the most important cohort for population growth, remote cameras were set at three water sources and mark–resight models in Program MARK were used.
Methods. We compared estimated abundance of collared and uncollared females by number of days cameras were set using 31 replicated abundance estimates from each year starting 1 July. Each replicated estimate used a different number of days and photographs from a 62-day sampling period (1 July to 31 August).
Key results. Abundance estimates ranged from 44 to 98 animals. Precise estimates of abundance, however, were obtained with only 12 days of sampling in each year. By analysing only 12 days of images rather than 62 days in all years, the estimated mean of 58 adult females would have changed by only 7 individuals (±4 individuals, range = 3–10 animals), the s.e. would have increased by a mean of only 4 individuals (±1.6, range = 2.0–5.2 individuals) and a mean of only 18% (±10.5%, range = 8–29%) of images would have been analysed. Across the study, analysis of >23 000 (>80%) images could have been avoided, saving time and money.
Conclusions. The results indicate that an asymptotic relationship exists between estimated abundance of female bighorn sheep and remote-camera deployment time.
Implications. The mark–resight methods used in the present study would work for other ungulates in which individuals are radio collared or marked using remote cameras set at water sources, trail crossings or mineral licks. These findings can help researchers reduce cost of setting, servicing, archiving and analysing photographs from remote cameras for ungulate population monitoring.