Developing an Improved Camera Survey Technique for Estimating White-tailed Deer Population Parameters

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By James Johnson

Obtaining reliable estimates of white-tailed deer population parameters is a critical component of responsible deer management.  Due to the ecological, economic, and recreational importance of whitetails, a variety of techniques have been developed in attempts to obtain various population parameters.  These methods include spotlight surveys, track counts, helicopter counts, and distance sampling using one or more of the aforementioned techniques.  However, one of the most widely employed methods of estimating population parameters involves the use of camera traps (trail cameras).

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The popularity of camera trapping is a function of its relatively low cost, ease of use, and effectiveness in a wide variety of habitats and landscapes.  This method usually requires users to place remote, infrared-triggered cameras over a number of evenly-spaced bait piles.  Post-survey picture analysis allows the user to estimate sex-ratio, age structure, recruitment, and population density.  While the protocol is relatively easy to understand, conducting surveys can be difficult and time consuming, the use of bait is illegal in some places and may be used only outside of hunting seasons in others. Along with the legal issues of using bait, several studies have raised concern regarding the validity of the results generated by this method, specifically the assumption of equal detection probabilities between sexes and age classes of deer.  These factors create several logistical concerns for those wishing to use the baited camera survey method.

Despite these shortcomings, this method has seen relatively little improvement over the past 15 years.  The current need for a method that produces precise estimates of population parameters in an economically and logistically reasonable manner is clear.  In collaboration with the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway, and with financial support from the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the UGA Deer Lab is conducting a study designed to create an improved method for estimating white-tailed deer population parameters.

DNR Camera Project

The first stage of protocol development is currently underway with the help of several large properties in Baker and Worth Counties in southwest Georgia. The next phase of this project will allow the team to implement and evaluate the new technique on a number of private and public lands across the state, aiming to generate reliable population parameter estimates for the state of Georgia.  The final stage of this project is designed to create a mechanism which the GA-DNR can use to estimate statewide population parameters required for proper management of white-tailed deer.