Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide

Abstract

Using fecal DNA and closed-capture models to estimate feral horse population size.

Abstract

Accurate population estimates provide the foundation for managing feral horses (Equus caballus ferus) across the western United States. Certain feral horse populations are protected by the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 and managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the United States Forest Service on designated herd management areas (HMAs) or wild horse territories, respectively. Horses are managed to achieve an appropriate management level (AML), which represents the number of horses determined by BLM to contribute to a thriving natural ecological balance and avoid deterioration of the range. To achieve AML for each HMA, BLM resource managers need accurate and precise population estimates. We tested the use of non-invasive fecal samples in a genetic capture-recapture framework to estimate population size in a closed horse population at the Little Book Cliffs HMA, Colorado, USA, with a known size of 153 individuals. We collected 1,957 samples over 3 independent sampling periods in 2014 and amplified them at 8 microsatellite loci. We applied mark-recapture models to determine population size using 954 samples that amplified at all 8 loci. We subsampled and reanalyzed our dataset to simulate different data collection protocols and evaluated effects on accuracy and precision of estimates using N-mixture modeling, full likelihood closed-capture modeling, and capwire single-occasion modeling that used data from all 3 sampling periods. Our model results were accurate and precise for analyses that used data from all 3 occasions; however, capwire single-occasion modeling was not accurate when we analyzed each sampling period separately. For all subsampling analysis scenarios, reducing sample size decreased precision, whether by reducing number of field staff, field days, or geographic areas surveyed on each period. Reducing spatial coverage of the survey area did not result in accurate population estimates and only marginally lowered the number of samples that would need to be collected to maintain accuracy. Because laboratory analysis contributes the greatest expense for this method ($80 U.S./sample), reducing fecal sample size is advantageous. Our results demonstrate that non-invasive sampling combined with good survey design and careful genetic and capture-recapture analyses can provide an alternative method to estimate the number of feral horses in a closed population. This method may be especially appropriate in situations where aerial inventories are not practical or accurate because of low sighting conditions. But the higher costs associated with laboratory sample analyses may reduce the method's feasibility compared to helicopter surveys.