In December an administrative law judge heard comments during a public hearing about the Indiana Natural Resources Commission’s proposed rule change to allow trapping of river otters.
The irony of the proposal is that the indigenous North America river otter was officially considered extinct in this state in 1942, due to over-trapping and loss of habitat, until the Department of Natural Resources re-introduced them 20 years ago.
Rise and fall of the otter
“River otters had been widespread at the time of settlement, but due to unregulated take before 1900, they were largely eliminated,” explains Scott Johnson, a furbearer specialist with the DNR’s Division of Fish & Wildlife.
Unregulated trapping, loss or degradation of aquatic habitats through filling of wetlands, and development of coal, oil, gas, tanning, timber and other industries led to their decline in much of the Midwest. By 1921 beavers and river otters were listed as protected species. Nevertheless, the population continued to dwindle. In 1980, an examination conducted on U.S. river otter populations determined they were extirpated in 11 states, and had experienced drastic lapses in nine others.
But from 1995 to 1999, in an attempt to re-introduce the popular mammal, the Department of Natural Resources released 303 river otters at 12 sites in northern and southern Indiana, where water quality and availability of wetlands are optimal. “The intent was to restore native fauna,” Johnson explains. “There is interest in restoring and protecting them.”
“It was a successful program. We have documented reproduction,” Johnson says. “That’s good wildlife management.”
Thanks to improved habitat, the re-introduction program has been so successful, river otters were de-listed from the state’s endangered species list in 2005. According to DNR’s Wildlife Diversity Report, river otters were sighted in 71 of 92 Indiana counties in 2009 and are now found in 80% (74) of Indiana counties. “Within 10 years, they went from none to off the state’s endangered species list,” says Phil Bloom, DNR director of communications.
From endangered species to nuisance
While that sounds like a happy ending, it instead marks the beginning of conflict with humans. The DNR reported 86 “otter damage” complaints in 2013, up from 34 in 2011. The Division of Fish & Wildlife issued a statement indicating their anticipation of more nuisance complaints as the river otter population increases and the animals expand their territory.
The DNR won’t specify what damage has occurred. Otters don’t excavate like beavers and muskrats do. “The main complaints come from pond owners complaining about them eating fish,” Johnson says. An otter’s diet consists of fish, crayfish and anything aquatic, such as an occasional frog.
Whether they’re eating fish in private ponds or commercial hatcheries, the once-popular otter is quickly gaining enemies, especially when economic or recreational losses are incurred.
However, it’s not just nuisance complaints, Bloom adds. The number being struck on roads is increasing. Five of the original 25 were struck and killed by vehicles within their first year in Indiana.
Otters are currently protected from both intentional and accidental trapping, although it’s already occurring. Trappers reported capturing 110 river otters in 2011-12.
Because they are protected furbearers, river otters cannot be hunted without a nuisance wild animal control permit. The number of control permits granted to property owners by the state nearly doubled, from 11 in 2012 to 21 in 2013.
Methods of reducing incursion have been suggested, such as better fencing and adding more structure to ponds to provide cover for fish. But the DFW has determined that a limited trapping season is the best option.
The proposed regulations would restrict when, where, and how otters can be trapped; limit the number of otters “harvested” to two and require mandatory registration.
“It would be a regulated season and a license would be required,” Bloom elaborates, pointing out that the sale of licenses funds the division. In fact, the state receives funding based on the number of licenses sold. “Excise tax allows us to bring back species and purchase habitat for wildlife.”
A temporary rule would be implemented annually by the director, specifying the counties open to trapping and the statewide quota. Trapping would be allowed only in counties where otter populations have reached a certain threshold and trappers would be able to harvest only two otters each season, Bloom said, adding that the number can be adjusted.
“The focus of management is sustainable populations,” he continues. “We want them to thrive and survive. This rule will not negatively impact the population; it’s just a limited opportunity for trappers to take some otters and sell the fur. The state manages resources for all people and all interests.”
Not all people are happy with the proposal of open season on otters from Nov. 15 to March 15. “It’s terrible how wildlife agencies use vast resources to restore extirpated populations, only to allow a select few to kill them again for a small profit, none of which benefits the state or wildlife,” comments Jodi Minion, wildlife biologist/issues manager for PETA.
Pointing out that the state already permits the “take” of nuisance river otters under the Nuisance Wild Animal Control permit, she sees no need for additional rules or regulations. “This has to be more about ensuring fish are meant for fishermen only, and appeasing the commercial trapping industry, which helped cause the species collapse initially. Most states manage their fisheries so there is enough food/water for wildlife—it shouldn’t just be about the interests of a few fishermen and trappers.”
While the greatest risks to otters in Indiana are the loss of aquatic habitats, human encroachment/development and fur trapping, they do have natural predators, including bobcats, birds of prey and large reptiles like snapping turtles. “The otter population in Indiana won’t explode because there isn’t habitat available to sustain them,” Minion says.
Johnson admits that other animal populations are managed without hunting and trapping because they produce “no products.” It is currently illegal to take or possess otter pelts, but if this proposal passes, otters will be classified as legal furbearers, subject to trapping.
The final report is expected to be presented to the NRC, requesting final adoption of the rule changes at its Jan. 20 meeting at the Garrison in Fort Harrison State Park. After final adoption, the rule changes must be approved by the attorney general’s and governor’s offices before taking effect.
Indiana would not be the first state to follow its river otter reintroduction efforts with a limited trapping season. Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri and West Virginia have already done so.
If approved, the earliest a river otter trapping season would occur is 2015-16. Until then, the Division of Fish & Wildlife “will continue to use management tools to resolve nuisance river otter complaints as they arise.”