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Illinois hunting and fishing

Brimfield trapper Scott Davis holds a trap used to catch raccoons. The same trap accidentally snared Davis’s first river otter in 1996, with a tag noting it as one of 346 otters released by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources two years earlier. Photos by David Zalaznik

First river otter trapping season since 1929 opens with population well above 10,000

November 05, 2012 at 08:22 AM

Peoria Journal Star

PEORIA — Scott Davis had his first unexpected encounter with a river otter when he found one in a trap set for a raccoon.

This otter, with brown fur, bristly whiskers and a body shaped like a torpedo, had an ear tag noting it was one of 346 otters released by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in one of the state’s greatest success stories.

That first meeting was in 1996, about two years after the otters were reintroduced in Illinois. Since then, Davis said he’s caught more and more - about 75 river otters in total - just in traps set for beavers and raccoons, as the population has increased.

Monday marks the opening of river otter trapping season in Illinois. For the first time since 1929, Davis and other trappers will be allowed to trade otter pelts, the most valuable of any animal in Illinois.

Before the otter recovery program began in 1994, estimates of the Illinois population were as low as 100 or fewer. Now, IDNR wildlife biologist Bob Bluett said, there are 15,000 to 20,000 river otters living in the state’s lakes, ponds, rivers and streams.

Illinois hunting and fishing
A river otter caught in Arkansas by Brimfield trapper Scott Davis mounted in his home.

“Within three or four years, it was pretty obvious that things were starting to take hold,” Bluett said. “At that point, we were starting to get some animals recovered that didn’t have ear tags, so reproduction was occurring.”

That reproduction rate - most litters consist of two to four young - and the fact that river otters have no natural predators, contributed to the quick population increase.

When Mike Kepple first spotted a river otter near one of his small lakes near old strip mines, he wasn’t sure what it was at first glance.

“The first time I saw one sunning himself on the dock, I didn’t know what it was,” Kepple said. “And that’s when I realized that that’s an otter, and I started seeing more and more.”

That was about two years after the first otters were released; now, central Illinois boasts the highest concentration of river otters in the state.

Kepple, who lives in Dunlap, owns two properties near Farmington and Canton that contain 18 small lakes, each of which he believes are frequented by river otters.

“One year they had a litter there, and it was a mother with five or six kits,” Kepple said. “I knew I had a problem then.”

Kepple is one of many who have noticed a boom in the river otter population. With each adult consuming up to five pounds of fish per day, otters can quickly decimate fish numbers, which is becoming an increasing problem for Illinois farmers and anglers.

“If somebody says they don’t have otters, it’s only because they haven’t seen them,” Kepple said. “If they’ve got lakes, they’ve got otters.”

And they might not ever see them. The otters can be very elusive, showing their heads above the water for only a few seconds before disappearing beneath the water.

They do, however, leave obvious signs of their presence. Landowners often notice fish bones or heads left uneaten or waste left by otters - piles of excrement loaded with fish scales.

Although trapping was one of the reasons otters almost disappeared, a five-otter-per-trapper limit this year and other regulations will help protect these animals and maintain healthy population levels.

Laura Nightengale can be reached at 686-3181 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow her on Twitter @lauranight.


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