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 monitored and studied the otter's population growth. What we have found is that otters love Missouri!

Missouri otters have been reproducing at record rates not seen before in other parts of the otter's range. The University of Missouri reports that an astonishing 60 percent of one-year-old female otters breed in our state, as well as 90 percent of those age two and older. And they are having and raising three to four pups per litter! Because of this high reproduction rate, otters have spread quickly into habitats that we did not initially think would support otters, like private ponds and lakes and small streams and creeks.

By 1994, just 12 years after the first release and only two years after the final release in Boone County, the otter population was not only stable and self-sustaining, it had risen to the point that otters were reported to be causing property damage.

After careful analysis of scientific data about the otter population, the Conservation Commission approved the first trapping season to begin in November 1996. By that time, trappers were annually capturing over 100 otters in traps set for beaver and raccoons, some of which were released relatively unharmed from foothold traps (with considerable effort from trappers). Those caught in quick-killing type traps set for beavers under water were relinquished to Conservation Department agents, and most were used in educational displays at nature centers, conservation offices and some public schools.

Establishing a modern day otter trapping season has not been accomplished without controversy. Although a traditional method of harvest, trapping has been under fire more than other consumptive outdoor activities, like fishing and hunting. The thought of cute and playful otters being caught in traps dismays many people, prompting some to protest otter trapping.

The first two trapping seasons were challenged by two court cases. The first lawsuit was filed against the Conservation Department by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), an animal rights group based in California, and two Missouri citizens. In dismissing that challenge, the court ruled that Missouri's otter trapping season was not "arbitrary and capricious," as the suit alleged, and that the Conservation Department had followed all proper procedures in establishing the wildlife rules.

In the second lawsuit, the ALDF was joined by another animal rights group, the Washington D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States, in U.S. District Court. This lawsuit was aimed at curtailing the market for otter pelts by seeking to block the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service from awarding Missouri export authorization in compliance with provisions of the CITES treaty (Convention in International Trade of Endangered Species). This lawsuit was dismissed in 1998.

In both lawsuits, the Conservation Department was accused of using vague, inconclusive, unreliable and even misleading data in order to cater to a small number of licensed trappers. They claimed that otter trapping would soon endanger the otter population and preclude other 'non-consumptive' wildlife values such as otter viewing. Despite having lost in court, the groups have orchestrated a form letter movement to oppose the trapping season.

Some of these charges seem unbelievable. The Conservation Department worked 11 years and spent $1.5 million to establish river otters in the state. We simply wouldn't turn around and nullify our work and investment and jeopardize the species by allowing an ill-advised trapping season.

Trapping seasons are set in mid-winter when animals are mature and independent. Traps must be checked daily, a practice normally followed by trappers to protect valuable fur from damage by other animals and to get traps back in production as quickly as possible.

The Conservation Department is concerned only with its mission of responsible stewardship of the state's forest, fish and wildlife resources. Overpopulation, even of highly attractive wildlife such as deer and otter, is in many cases even more of a problem than underpopulation and must be addressed. When animal numbers get out of hand, we invariably see a rise in damage and injury complaints, as well as threats from animal borne diseases, such as canine distemper and rabies.

Since 1994, the Conservation Department has received a steady stream of complaints about otter damage and the negative impact of otters on fishing success. Those complaints also have appeared in letters to editors and articles in newspapers.

Otters have been accused of invading private fishing ponds and commercial fish hatcheries stocked by individual landowners. Otters are notoriously adept at catching fish and can clean out a small pond in a matter of a few nights, sometimes leaving dead fish on the bank to rot. Landowners claim they are left with no sizeable fish to catch, and they aren't keen to invest in restocking ponds in the presence of numerous otters.

The otters are also accused of preying heavily on smallmouth and largemouth bass, goggle eye, catfish and suckers. Anglers 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.

The concept of trapping infuriates some and has led a few other states to outlaw or severely restrict this method of harvest. Missourians, however, seem to recognize the role of trapping in wildlife management. In a 1997 poll, more than 70 percent of Missouri residents agree that regulated trapping is OK. Trapping is an essential tool for keeping wildlife populations stable.

Keep in mind that the otters brought to Missouri to reestablish our population were themselves caught in foothold traps, and look how they've flourished!

The otter comeback has been amazing and it's not confined to Missouri. Nearly 4,000 healthy otters have been trapped and moved to new homes in 18 states. Although Missouri's program wasn't the first ever, it has been the most intensive. Many states have consulted with us and have patterned their efforts after ours. Once again, we have taken the lead in creating biodiversity.

In search of a better trap

Missouri leads the nation in the search for a more humane trap. The Conservation Department's Columbia Research Center is headquarters for a 21-state, 5-year effort to improve trap efficiency while reducing the pain or discomfort inflicted on animals.

The study, a partnership of the USDA's Wildlife Services, state fish and wildlife agencies and trappers, will determine new codes of conduct or Best Management Practices (called BMPs) that will be implemented across the country in trapper education programs and trapping regulations.

Already, 32 types of traps have been evaluated on nine different species. Three wildlife veterinarians and their staffs carefully examine each animal caught by trappers in the studies to evaluate a trap's performance. Wildlife biologists also measure the trap's selectivity, efficiency, cost-effectiveness and practicality.

The $700,000 annual study is expected to bring about modifications in the design of existing traps to reduce discomfort to animals and the development of new traps, such as the EGG trap (pictured below) for raccoons, that are more efficient, selective and humane.

Although often under fire from animal rights proponents, trapping has proven itself to be a valuable management tool for controlling wildlife numbers and reducing wildlife damage. After traps were banned in Massachusetts in 1996, beaver numbers rose from 18,000 to 55, 000 in only three years and flooding damage to roads and buildings skyrocketed. Nationwide, beavers cause an estimated $500 million damage annually.

Trapping is carefully regulated. About 200,000 families nationwide earn some secondary income from trapping, either from the sale of pelts or other animal byproducts.

Otter Appetites

On average, an otter eats about 2.5 pounds of meat per day. Researchers examined 443 otter stomachs voluntarily submitted by trappers during the 1997/98 and 1998/99 trapping seasons. Just like people, otters often eat more than one item in a meal. Researchers discovered the following frequencis of occurrence of food itmes in otter digestive tracts:

Otter Stomachs containg identifiable fall prey items
Type Percent
Crayfish 61
Fish 51
Frogs 17
Muskrats 3
Ducks 1
Empty 4
Ozark otter stomachs containing identifiable fish species
Species percent
Bass (sunfish family) 39
Suckers and Carp 31
Minnows 14
Shad 11
Pike (chain pickerel) 6
Trout 3
Catfish 3
Drum 3
Unidentified Fish 19
Age of Game Fish in Ozark Otter Stomachs
Age Percent
1-3 years 40
4-6 years 40
7-9 years 20

Trapping is carefully regulated. About 200,000 families nationwide earn some secondary income from trapping, either from the sale of pelts or other animal byproducts. triangle

State Released Years
Missouri 845 1982-92
Tennessee 487 1983-94
Kentucky 355 1991-94
Illinois 346 1994-97
Indiana 303 1995-99
North Carolina 267 1990-95
Iowa 261 1985-99*
West Virginia 249 1984-97
Nebraska 159 1986-91
New York 153 1995-99*
Ohio 123 1986-92
Pennsylvania 105 1982-99*
Colorado 86 1976-91
Maryland 80 1990-99*
Arizona 46 1981-83
Minnesota 21 1980-82
Oklahoma 20 1984-85
Kansas 19 1983-84

*Ongoing releases

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