Using multilevel spatial models to understand salamander site occupancy patterns after wildfire
Studies of the distribution of elusive forest wildlife have suffered from the confounding of true presence with the uncertainty of detection. Occupancy modeling, which incorporates probabilities of species detection conditional on presence, is an emerging approach for reducing observation bias. However, the current likelihood modeling framework is restrictive for handling unexplained sources of variation in the response that may occur when there are dependence structures such as smaller sampling units that are nested within larger sampling units. We used multilevel Bayesian occupancy modeling to handle dependence structures and partition sources of variation in occupancy of sites by terrestrial salamanders (family Plethodontidae) within and surrounding an earlier wildfire in western Oregon, USA. Comparison of model fit favored a spatial N-mixture model that accounted for variation in salamander abundance over models that were based on binary detection/non-detection data. Though catch per unit effort was higher in burned areas than unburned, there was strong support that this pattern was due to a higher probability of capture for individuals in burned plots. Within the burn the odds of capturing an individual given it was present were 2.06 times the odds outside the burn, reflecting reduced complexity of ground cover in the burn. There was weak support that true occupancy was lower within the burned area. While the odds of occupancy in the burn were 0.49 times the odds outside the burn among the five species, the magnitude of variation attributed to the burn was small in comparison to variation attributed to other landscape variables and to unexplained, spatially autocorrelated random variation. While ordinary occupancy models may separate the biological pattern of interest from variation in detection probability when all sources of variation are known, the addition of random effects structures for unexplained sources of variation in occupancy and detection probability may often more appropriately represent levels of uncertainty.