Rules of Engagement

By Tom Hutton and Jim Braithwait | December 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Dec 2003

Most people enjoy having wildlife around and are willing to tolerate some inconvenience, possibly even some property damage, for that privilege.

Occasionally, however, people reach a point when their tolerance is exhausted. They might be frustrated by squirrels in the attic, woodpeckers hammering on siding, moles in the lawn, deer eating shrubbery, coyotes killing livestock, beavers flooding fields, or river otters eating catfish in their ponds.

Even folks with considerable tolerance are sometimes frustrated by the determined persistence of critters. Beavers, for example, will rebuild a dam as many times as you can tear it out. It's easy to become disenchanted with deer that have damaged or destroyed landscaping in which you've invested blood, sweat and money. You might even start to resent those playful otters after they've eaten the catfish you planned to share with family and friends.

Long before you get ready to take action against the critters causing damage, it helps to know some "rules of engagement."

The first rule is to "do your best to avoid engagement." Keeping your buildings and fences in good repair, for example, will keep squirrels from nesting in your attic, skunks from crawling under your house and foxes and coyotes from attacking your pigs or poultry.

It's also a good idea to keep garbage containers tightly closed and secure. If necessary, build a wildlife-proof bin holder. If you feed pets or livestock outside, don't leave extra food out that might attract other critters. Feed your pets only as much they can eat at one time, then remove any extra food.

The second rule is "good fences make good critters." Where practical, keep wildlife from places you don't want them. Install chimney caps to keep raccoons, squirrels and bats from entering houses. Build strong poultry pens with netting on top to prevent foxes, raccoons, owls and hawks from getting to chickens and ducks. Netting will also deter woodpeckers from hammering on your house, robins from picking your fruit and deer from feasting on your flowers or shrubs.

The third rule is "identify the perpetrator." Counteroffensives will only be effective when you know exactly which species is causing a problem. For example, determine whether the mounds in your yard are made by moles or pocket gophers. Find out if the noises in the attic are from bats, squirrels or raccoons. Are the burrows under the patio made by skunks or groundhogs? Is it squirrels, skunks, raccoons or armadillos that are digging in your yard? Are your chickens being killed by foxes, bobcats, raccoons, hawks or owls? Is the animal in the pond a beaver, muskrat or river otter?

Each animal leaves telltale signs in the form of feces, tracks, style of digging and the way they kill and feed. Identifying those signs can help you take the most appropriate action.

The fourth rule is "withdraw the welcome mat" by making your property less attractive to problem animals. Trim back tree limbs to make it harder for squirrels to reach the house. Plant tall grasses and/or shrubs along the shore of a lake to discourage geese. If deer are eating up your garden and shrubbery, landscape with plants that deer don't like. If foxes or coyotes are threatening pets, consider fencing the yard. If snakes are giving you the creeps, clear away any debris or firewood near the house that might provide cover for them and the animals they eat.

The fifth rule is "lure them away." Planting alfalfa away from the house can help keep deer from munching on our landscaping plants. Planting bluegrass/clover on the far side of the lake, while planting tall grasses on the side near the house, can reduce "goose nuisance" on your lawn or patio. Providing nesting boxes for squirrels and roosting houses for bats will give them a better alternative to nesting in your attic.

The sixth rule is "scare them if you can." Scarecrows help protect gardens by keeping birds away. Many other scare devices will work to frighten or rattle wildlife. These might include pie pans and flashy ribbons, fireworks, scary-eye balloons, dogs, chemical repellents, laser guns and motion-activated sprinklers. Your "weapon" of choice will depend on the animal involved and the particular situation.

If all else fails, the Wildlife Code of Missouri includes a "trump" rule that allows landowners to protect their property by trapping or shooting some species of wildlife where local ordinances don't prohibit these methods. On Page 4 of the Wildlife Code under 3 CSR 10-4.130, it states:

"Subject to federal regulations governing the protection of property from migratory birds, any wildlife except deer, turkey, black bears and endangered species which beyond a reasonable doubt is damaging property may be captured or killed by the owner of the property being damaged, or by his/her representative at any time and without permit, but only by shooting or trapping... Wildlife may be so controlled only on the owner's property to prevent further damage. Wildlife so killed or captured must be reported to an agent of the department within twenty-four hours and disposed of according to his/her instructions. Deer, turkey, black bears and endangered species that are causing damage may be killed only with the permission of an agent of the department and by methods authorized by him/her."

Many landowners are unaware of this regulation and believe that they have no recourse when the critters seem to be winning the war.


River otter depredation of fish in ponds is a good example of the kind of damage landowners suffer when they actually could be doing something to protect their property from wildlife.

At one time, river otters were classified as "endangered" in Missouri. That is no longer the case. Missouri's river otter population has increased beyond expectations since the restoration program began in the 1980s. River otters are now common and are regulated in the same manner as most resident wildlife species.

The Wildlife Code specifies that "otters which are damaging property may be captured or killed by shooting or trapping on the owner's own property." The only requirement is that they be reported to a Department agent and disposed of according to their instructions.

Ongoing river otter skirmishes can illustrate how the "rules of engagement" work. It's an early autumn day. The trees are turning brilliant shades of red, yellow, orange and bright green. The water in the lake is so calm it looks like a thin sheet of glass, and fog is slowly rising off the water as sunlight warms the cool air. Birds are singing and, at the lower end of the lake, a pair of wood ducks takes flight, startled by your presence.

You're fishing, but the fishing is very, very slow. You've only caught a few small fish, and your favorite lures aren't producing. Something is wrong.

You decide to walk the dam to inspect the drain tube and look for deer sign around the shore. You easily identify deer and raccoon tracks in the mud, but something else catches your eye!

You find some droppings that resemble raccoon feces but, instead of corn and weed seeds, they contain orange fragments as well as fish scales. Several droppings are concentrated in one area near a path where animals have been entering and exiting the water. You also find fish heads scattered around the pond and an occasional fish just partially eaten. What kind of animal would do this? Otters. Yes, river otters are responsible for damage in this situation.

Otters eat an average of 2.5 pounds of meat daily. Fish and crayfish are their favorite food items. They also eat frogs, salamanders, snakes, turtles, and muskrats. Otters eat crayfish more frequently throughout the spring, summer, and fall. However, as water temperatures cool in late fall, crayfish burrow into the mud and are less available, forcing otters to eat more fish. An analysis of 443 otters during the 1997-99 trapping seasons revealed the following occurrences of food in their stomachs:

Food type Percent
Crayfish 61
Fish 51
Frogs 17
Muskrats 3
Ducks 1
Empty stomachs 4

The proportions are similar wherever otters are found. The river otter's keen senses and predatory skills make catching their food "child's play." When otters enter a pond or lake, they tend to stay only a short time, from a day to a couple of weeks. If they find abundant fish or crayfish, they remember the location and will eventually come back for more.

Their nomadic behavior increases their odds of survival because it increases their sources of food and decreases your odds of catching them in the act. Knowing this, what can you do if you suspect otters are seriously reducing the number of fish in your pond?

Avoid engagement--This is harder to do as the otter population has increased. Ponds larger than 1 or 2 acres, especially those with underwater brush piles or other good escape cover, suffer less severe damage than smaller impoundments. Small, shallow ponds stocked with "fed" catfish and without any escape cover literally provide "fish in a barrel" for otters.

Good fences make good critters--Well-maintained electric, chain link, small-mesh welded wire, or combination electric and permanent fencing can protect catfish in small, shallow ponds.

Identify the perpetrator--Don't assume every furry animal in your pond is an otter. Beaver and muskrat also frequent ponds and are not a threat to fish. If your pond or lake is large enough, there is no cause for alarm, even if the furry animal is an otter. In some cases, otters may even help populations of desirable fish by eating some species that tend to overpopulate.

Especially in late winter/early spring or in late summer, decomposition of plant material sometimes depletes the oxygen in pond water and kills fish. The carcasses often drift to shore to be consumed by raccoons and other scavengers. Great blue herons and even other catfish sometimes cause wounds that contribute to fish mortality. Sampling the fish population is a good way to determine whether there is a serious problem and whether otters or something else is the cause.

Withdraw the welcome mat--Otters generally stay for shorter periods if there isn't a convenient place for them to "hole up." Removing brush piles, overflow pipes, beaver lodges/dens and even overturned boats and other places where otters may rest would encourage them to leave sooner.

Lure them away--This approach is not practical for otters. Even a more abundant food source nearby will not keep them from exploring other potential food sources.

Scare them if you can--This also has limited application for otters. Shooting "shell crackers" or live ammunition near them may scare them away temporarily, but is not a practical long-term deterrent.

Owner May Protect Property--As mentioned above, landowners have a right to protect their property under the Wildlife Code of Missouri. If the above approaches fail or aren't practical, this "trump" card remains available.

One option is to shoot the otters that are causing the damage. It's best to use a shotgun rather than a rifle to reduce the possibility of projectiles ricocheting from the water's surface. Another option is to trap the otters. If feasible, wait until the fall trapping season begins in November. If you obtain a trapping permit, you or a local trapper may sell the pelt and make some use of the animal. Your nearest Conservation Department office can help you obtain a list of available trappers associated with the Missouri Trappers Association.

The Conservation Department has a new book titled: Missouri's River Otters: A Guide to Management and Damage Control. This publication gives detailed information on river otter biology and habits, along with instructions for evaluating and dealing with river otter damage.

The Missouri Department of Conservation's Wildlife Damage Program and other Department staff are available to landowners experiencing wildlife damage. If a problem should occur and you need help, first contact the conservation agent in your county. If unable to find a solution, the agent will contact a wildlife damage biologist to provide further assistance. Five wildlife damage biologists are located throughout the state. They assist landowners by phone or may visit the site of the damage.

The program provides information and equipment necessary for landowners to solve their immediate problems and help prevent further damage. The Department is also experimenting with floating traps which hold promise of being another safe, cost-effective tool for controlling river otters in ponds. Any traps or materials needed are sold at cost to the landowner.

We Missourians are blessed to live in a state where wildlife is abundant and diverse. For the most part, we can live in harmony, but when critters cause problems, Conservation Department services are just a phone call away.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler