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Genetic mark‐recapture analysis of winter faecal pellets allows estimation of population size in Sage Grouse Centrocercus urophasianus

August 9, 2019

The Sage Grouse Centrocercus urophasianus is a species of conservation concern throughout its range in western North America. Since the 1950s, the high count of males at leks has been used as an index for monitoring populations. However, the relationship between this lek‐count index and population size is unclear, and its reliability for assessing population trends has been questioned. We used non‐invasive genetic mark‐recapture analysis of faecal and feather samples to estimate pre‐breeding population size for the Parachute‐Piceance‐Roan, a small, geographically isolated population of Sage Grouse in western Colorado, during two consecutive winters from 2012 to 2014. We estimated total pre‐breeding population size as 335 (95% confidence interval (CI): 287–382) in the first winter and 745 (95% CI: 627–864) in the second, an approximate doubling in abundance between years. Although we also observed a large increase in the spring lek‐count index between those years, high male count data poorly represented mark‐recapture estimates of male abundance in each year. Our data suggest that lek counts are useful for detecting the direction and magnitude of large changes in Sage Grouse abundance over time but they may not reliably reflect small changes in abundance that may be relevant to small populations of conservation concern.