Across much of North America, river otter (Lontra canadensis) populations were extirpated or greatly reduced by the early 20th century. More recently, reintroductions have resulted in restored populations and the recommencement of managed trapping. Perhaps the best example of these river otter reintroductions occurred in Missouri, regarded as one of the most successful carnivore recovery programs in history. However, abundance estimates for river otter populations are difficult to obtain and often contentious when used to underpin management activities. We assessed the value of latrine site monitoring as a mechanism for quantifying river otter abundance. Analyses of fecal DNA to identify individual animals may result in an improved population estimate and have been used for a variety of mammal species. We optimized laboratory protocols, redesigned existing microsatellite primers, and calculated genotyping error rates to enhance genotyping success for a large quantity of river otter scat samples. We also developed a method for molecular sexing. We then extracted DNA from 1,421 scat samples and anal sac secretions (anal jelly) collected during latrine site counts along 22–34-km stretches representing 8–77% of 8 rivers in southern Missouri in 2009. Error rates were low for the redesigned microsatellites. We obtained genotypes at 7–10 microsatellite loci for 24% of samples, observing highest success for anal jelly samples (71%) and lowest for fresh samples (collected within 1 day of defecation). We identified 63 otters (41 M, 22 F) in the 8 rivers, ranging from 2 to 14 otters per river. Analyses using program CAPWIRE resulted in population estimates similar to the minimum genotyping estimate. Density estimates averaged 0.24 otters/km. We used linear regression to develop and contrast models predicting population size based on latrine site and scat count indices, which are easily collected in the field. Population size was best predicted by a combination of scats per latrine and latrines per kilometer. Our results provide methodological approaches to guide wildlife managers seeking to initiate similar river otter fecal genotyping studies, as well as to estimate and monitor river otter population sizes.
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