Controversy in Times of Plenty

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

In 1982, nineteen otters eased from their newly opened cages and slipped into the water at the Swan Lake National Wildlife refuge in north-central Missouri. That first release led to an innovative program that has restored otters to their former habitat. The program was so successful that we now are experiencing otter "growing pains."

River otters were once common along all of Missouri's waterways and wetlands, but the same pressures of unregulated harvest and unrelenting habitat destruction during settlement that were knocking down white-tailed deer, wild turkey, beaver and other wildlife populations took their toll on the state's otters.

By the time a historic statewide wildlife inventory was completed by Rudolf Bennett and Werner Nagel in 1936, only a handful of otters remained in pockets of habitat in the bootheel of southeastern Missouri. By the early 1980s, when the decision was made to go forward with a large effort to restore otters to all major river drainages in the state, few otters lived in Missouri.

Bringing back otters involved some wheeling and dealing. We traded wild turkeys to state game managers in Kentucky who, in return, purchased healthy Louisiana river otters that had been captured in the wild with foothold traps and brought them to Missouri for release.

The otter project has had the support of thousands of people who attended release ceremonies at various streams throughout the state during the 1980s and 1990s. Many wore T-shirts encour-aging, 'Bring 'em Back to Missouri'.

Now they're back. Thanks to an 11-year restocking effort by the Conservation Department, river otters have taken up residence in just about every nook and cranny of Missouri's waterways. Our efforts have paid off so well that in a soon-to-be released book about global carnivore restoration efforts, Dr. Stephen Funk of the London Zoological Society refers to the Missouri otter restoration program as the most successful and best documented carnivore recovery effort in the world!

The decision of whether or not to restore otters was an easy one to make. We believed otters could exist in Missouri within the limits of human tolerance --enough, but not too many. We predicted that, eventually, a regulated trapping season might be required to manage otter numbers and control the damage that otters might cause. The necessity of a regulated trapping season for river otters was thought to be an indication of successful restoration.

Throughout the restoration project, the researchers have intensively

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