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Missouri River Otter Saga

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2007

Last revision: Dec. 1, 2010

fish in the winter when they are most vulnerable. They especially target hand-fed catfish. They might eat 2 to 3 pounds of fish per day. At times, fish are so easy to catch that otters kill many more than they eat, leaving the evidence of the massacre on the banks for the owners to discover.

As otters multiplied and spread out from the release points, calls began to pour in about farm ponds being ravaged. Anglers became angry, demanding some kind of relief. We now recommend that pond owners who are at all worried about their fish shoot otters when they show up. All we ask is that they contact us if they do so.

Otter damage wasn’t limited to farm ponds. Otters also found fishing easy in shallow pools of small headwater streams and tributaries in the central Ozarks. Conservation agents in that region handled more than 500 otter complaints in one year alone. As one local angler put it, “There’s not enough room for otters and fishermen in the Ozarks.”

Local politicians became involved, and the otter topic became a hot-rock in the state capitol. The news media fed on the issue with newspaper headlines like, “Otters at Center of Controversy,” “The fur flies over Missouri’s cute but greedy river otters,” and “Ozark Otter Disaster.”

Almost overnight, the Conservation Department had gone from hero to goat for its “successful” otter restoration program.

In search of balance

We initiated our first regulated trapping season in 1996 to help bring balance back to the state’s rivers and ponds. Despite two court cases forced by two national animal rights groups, we have had annual trapping seasons ever since. Missouri trappers are the backbone of our management efforts to restore some balance to the otter population.

By 1998, however, we realized that the two-month-long trapping season wasn’t enough, so we formed a citizen advisory committee to help find a solution. The committee, composed of otter enthusiasts, anglers, county commissioners, an animal rights activist, fisheries and wildlife biologists, stream ecologists, crayfish experts, university professors, graduate students, a trapper and a few local business owners, worked together to tackle the problem.

After two long years of looking at data, taking field trips to farm ponds, wading along streams searching for otter latrines and fish parts, and wrangling over their varied interests, the team agreed on a compromise.

Otter management zones now protect otters in low-density areas with a limited otter harvest, and they

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