River otters another successful comeback
By John Martino
I love success stories, especially when they involve Indiana wildlife. In the last several decades you can look no farther than the bobcat, badger, wild turkey or bald eagle to see proof of a wildlife species once rare in the Hoosier state now thriving in almost every Indiana County. Add river otters to that growing list.
These semi-aquatic mammals have taken up permanent residence and have no plans of leaving. Many consider that great news considering the playful creatures were officially classified as extinct in 1942, when in reality they were more than likely history way before that.
If you were to ask people-on-the-street who is most responsible for restoring our states wildlife I am sure you would get some interesting answers – and most would be wrong. The correct answer is hunters.
Funding generated through the sale of hunting and trapping licenses, plus taxes levied on related equipment funds the majority of all Hoosier wildlife related programs for both game as well as non-game species.
The otter’s success dates back to 1995 when reintroduction efforts began with the goal of establishing healthy populations in several watersheds in northern and southern Indiana. That’s when 25 otters were released in Muscatuck National Wildlife Refuge.
Over the next four years, 300, originally trapped from Louisiana, were released in the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge and the Patoka watershed to the south and Tippecanoe State Park and the upper Wabash watershed to the north.
The reintroduction efforts went so well that in only 10 years otters were removed from the state endangered species list. “Since they were declassified they continue to expand in populations and range,” said Scott Johnson, IDNR nongame biologist. And expand they have.
On public and state lands, otters have gained a strong foothold and are a welcome site to the Indiana landscape. Their quizzical and curious nature attracts visitors who enjoy watching their movements of sleek and grace. However, sometimes they can create problems for private landowners who see them as anything but beautiful.
For example, about the same time otters were being released, Bill McQuistin bought a small home in rural Fulton County. One of the main drawing cards was his new homestead came with a pond spanning nearly one acre.
An avid fisherman, McQuiston enjoyed catching hybrid bluegills, channel cats and bass from his pond. “The fishing used to be really good until those otters came around,” he said, shaking his head in disgust.
At first he enjoyed seeing the playful, curious animals around his home. That was until he watched them pull fish after fish up to the bank to eat. He then began to notice his fish population decline. “It’s amazing how many fish they can eat in one day,” he added. “I watched one otter eat 6 bluegills in one afternoon.”
State wildlife managers are well aware conflicts can arise from higher otter numbers, especially with private pond owners. “One pond owner may enjoy watching them while a different landowner may find them to be a nuisance and upset by the decline of fish,” said DNR furbearer biologist Shawn Rossler.
In 2013 the DNR received over 64 formal complaints of river otters eating fish out of private ponds and commercial fish hatcheries. But now in the effort to manage their population, otters can be legally trapped.
As their numbers continue to grow, wildlife managers must find a balance to keep populations healthy while preventing mounting conflicts with landowners. Finding this equilibrium won’t be easy, but it is needed to ensure the continued success and acceptance of all river otters in the Hoosier state.
With the holiday season right around the corner, my family and I want to wish every one of you a very Merry Christmas.