A double-observer method for reducing bias in faecal pellet surveys of forest ungulates.
Faecal surveys are used widely to study variations in abundance and distribution of forest-dwelling mammals when direct enumeration is not feasible. The utility of faecal indices of abundance is limited, however, by observational bias and variation in faecal disappearance rates that obscure their relationship to population size. We developed methods to reduce variability in faecal surveys and improve reliability of faecal indices. We used double-observer transect sampling to estimate observational bias of faecal surveys of Roosevelt elk Cervus elaphus roosevelti and Columbian black-tailed deer Odocoileus hemionus columbianus in Olympic National Park, Washington, USA. We also modelled differences in counts of faecal groups obtained from paired cleared and uncleared transect segments as a means to adjust standing crop faecal counts for a standard accumulation interval and to reduce bias resulting from variable decay rates. Estimated detection probabilities of faecal groups ranged from <0.2-1.0 depending upon the observer, whether the faecal group was from elk or deer, faecal group size, distance of the faecal group from the sampling transect, ground vegetation cover, and the interaction between faecal group size and distance from the transect. Models of plot-clearing effects indicated that standing crop counts of deer faecal groups required 34% reduction on flat terrain and 53% reduction on sloping terrain to represent faeces accumulated over a standard 100-day interval, whereas counts of elk faecal groups required 0% and 46% reductions on flat and sloping terrain, respectively. Synthesis and applications. Double-observer transect sampling provides a cost-effective means of reducing observational bias and variation in faecal decay rates that obscure the interpretation of faecal indices of large mammal abundance. Given the variation we observed in observational bias of faecal surveys and persistence of faeces, we emphasize the need for future researchers to account for these comparatively manageable sources of bias before comparing faecal indices spatially or temporally. Double-observer sampling methods are readily adaptable to study variations in faecal indices of large mammals at the scale of the large forest reserve, natural area, or other forested regions when direct estimation of populations is problematic.