Dempsey, S. J., E. M. Gese, B. M. Kluever, R. C. Lonsinger, and L. P. Waits. 2015. Evaluation of scat deposition transects versus radio telemetry for developing a species distribution model for a rare desert carnivore, the kit fox. PloS ONE 10:e0138995. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0138995.
Development and evaluation of noninvasive methods for monitoring species distribution and abundance is a growing area of ecological research. While noninvasive methods have the advantage of reduced risk of negative factors associated with capture, comparisons to methods using more traditional invasive sampling is lacking. Historically kit foxes (Vulpes macrotis) occupied the desert and semi-arid regions of southwestern North America. Once the most abundant carnivore in the Great Basin Desert of Utah, the species is now considered rare. In recent decades, attempts have been made to model the environmental variables influencing kit fox distribution. Using noninvasive scat deposition surveys for determination of kit fox presence, we modeled resource selection functions to predict kit fox distribution using three popular techniques (Maxent, fixed-effects, and mixed-effects generalized linear models) and compared these with similar models developed from invasive sampling (telemetry locations from radio-collared foxes). Resource selection functions were developed using a combination of landscape variables including elevation, slope, aspect, vegetation height, and soil type. All models were tested against subsequent scat collections as a method of model validation. We demonstrate the importance of comparing multiple model types for development of resource selection functions used to predict a species distribution, and evaluating the importance of environmental variables on species distribution. All models we examined showed a large effect of elevation on kit fox presence, followed by slope and vegetation height. However, the invasive sampling method (i.e., radio-telemetry) appeared to be better at determining resource selection, and therefore may be more robust in predicting kit fox distribution. In contrast, the distribution maps created from the noninvasive sampling (i.e., scat transects) were significantly different than the invasive method, thus scat transects may be appropriate when used in an occupancy framework to predict species distribution. We concluded that while scat deposition transects may be useful for monitoring kit fox abundance and possibly occupancy, they do not appear to be appropriate for determining resource selection. On our study area, scat transects were biased to roadways, while data collected using radio-telemetry was dictated by movements of the kit foxes themselves. We recommend that future studies applying noninvasive scat sampling should consider a more robust random sampling design across the landscape (e.g., random transects or more complete road coverage) that would then provide a more accurate and unbiased depiction of resource selection useful to predict kit fox distribution.