Controversy in Times of Plenty
fishing clear Ozark headwater streams are reporting a dramatic and rapid loss of keeper-sized fish and believe that otters are responsible. Anglers in other parts of the state have also complained about otter depredation.
Anglers contend that river otters locate and prey upon the larger bass in headwater Ozark streams. This predation occurs primarily in winter when the fish congregate in deeper holes of water and the otter's primary prey--crayfish--is less available. Adult fish are more vulnerable because they are larger and more lethargic.
For the most part, trappers have been on the sidelines of the otter controversy. Although they are concerned about any legal threat to trapping in Missouri, few trappers specifically target river otters. Missouri trappers primarily pursue raccoons or beaver, which are much more abundant. Even though otter pelts can be valuable (as much as $40 in some years), trappers make more money by concentrating on species that are more readily available. In fact, only about 400 to 600 trappers even catch a single otter in a year. Most otters are caught incidentally in traps set for raccoons and beavers.
In an attempt to reconcile all parties and concerns relating to otter trapping, Conservation Department Director Jerry Conley created the River Otter Task Force in 1998. This group is comprised of anglers and others concerned about too many otters, a trapper, a trapping opponent and several Conservation Department biologists. The group is charged with reviewing scientific data concerning otters and fish, stream water quality and otter damage in streams and private ponds, exploring management options and providing recommendations.
Meanwhile, we continue to have a lot of otters in Missouri. We have been tracking them with radio transmitters, counting their tracks and winter slide marks and extrapolating from our reproduction and survival data. In the three trapping seasons held thus far, trappers took 1,054 in 1996, 1,149 in 1997, and 854 otters in 1998. And the otter population continues to flourish. Our population model estimates the otter population will reach nearly 11,000 animals in the year 2000, while researchers at the University of Missouri predict we will have as many as 18,000 otters.
Our goal is to ensure that river otters will continue to thrive and be welcome in Missouri. To prevent damage to private and public property, we know we must manage the population with the best management tool at our disposal, a regulated trapping season.