Date of Award
Master of Science
River otter (Lontra canadensis) populations in Illinois have rebounded considerably after >80 years of harvest protection and a successful reintroduction program. However, few studies of river otter ecology exist in the Midwestern U.S. where river otter numbers have increased in recent decades. Capturing study animals safely and efficiently is a critical part of wildlife research, and difficulties associated with live capture of river otters have contributed to the dearth of research on the species. Furthermore, estimating survival rates and identifying causes of mortality are important in effectively managing river otters. To address these knowledge gaps, my objectives were determine survival rates and mortality causes for river otters in southern Illinois, and to measure injury rates of river otters captured using Comstock traps. During 2014-16, I captured 42 river otters 49 times at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge (CONWR) in southern Illinois. Eight river otters (3 M, 5 F) were captured in foot-hold traps during 788 trap nights (1 capture/88 trap nights), and the remaining 34 (19 M, 15 F) were captured in Comstock traps during 2,540 trap nights (1 capture/64 trap nights). I detected no significant differences in efficiency or escape rate between the 2 trap types, but Comstock traps did have higher rates for both unavailability and non-target captures. Eleven of the 20 river otters inspected for injuries received some type of injury as a result of capture in a Comstock trap (55%). The most common injury was claw loss (45%), followed by tooth fracture (25%), and lacerations (10%). The ease of setting the Comstock traps and of releasing non-target captures made them a more appealing option than foot-hold traps; however, river otters have a propensity for doing permanent damage to their teeth when live captured in Comstock traps. My study provides information on the functionality and safety of a novel live capture method for river otters. Thirty-four (16 F, 18 M) river otters were successfully radio-marked and monitored for survival for a total of 8,235 radio-days (¯x days/river otter = 242.2 ± 20.6 [SE throughout]). Two river otters (2 M) died during the period of radio-telemetry monitoring: 1 was trapped during nuisance wildlife control activities at an adjacent fish hatchery, and the other died of unknown causes. Annual survival rates were 1.0 ± 0.00 (lower confidence bound = 0.83) and 0.85 ± 0.09 for females and males, respectively, and similar between sexes (χ_1^2 = 1.7, P = 0.19). Pooled-sex breeding season survival was 0.96 ± 0.04. Trapping was the primary source of mortality over the course of my study. After radio-telemetry ended, 2 river otters were harvested by recreational trappers, at 114 (1 M) and 120 (1 F) weeks post-capture, and 1 male was killed by a vehicle collision at 52 weeks post-capture. Primary mortality sources for river otters in southern Illinois are similar to those reported elsewhere (i.e., trapping and vehicle collisions). Although I found no significant difference in survival rates between sexes, the majority of otters that died during my study were male (4 M, 1 F). As river otters occupying CONWR are protected from harvest, males may be more likely to leave the confines of CONWR, thereby putting themselves at greater risk to recreational trapping mortality. My study provides useful demographic information for Illinois’ recently-recovered river otter population.
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