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Otters have come back strong since they were reintroduced to Illinois waterways in the 1990s. Photo by T.J. Salsman/The State Journal-Register.

First otter trapping season called a success

September 12, 2013 at 09:21 PM

The State Journal-Register

Illinois trappers took just over 2,000 river otters during the 2012-13 season, the first time trappers could legally catch them since 1929.

Based on population estimates, Illinois Department of Natural Resources furbearer biologist Bob Bluett said he had expected between 1,200 and 1,800 otters to be taken. “The difference was fur prices were up,” he said. “More people were trapping and there was more opportunity to catch otters.”

License sales also were up from 4,996 in 2011-12 to 6,384 last season.

That there are enough otters to support a trapping season at all is a conservation success story.

The river otter had become rare in the state by the early 1900s due to habitat loss and unregulated harvest. It is likely that fewer than 100 otters remained before 1990.

Since their reintroduction in Illinois from 1994 to 1997, otters have thrived, with populations growing quickly — so quickly that they occasionally become nuisances, cleaning out fishing ponds near rivers and streams.

In 2009, Illinois was home to an estimated 11,000 otters. That number was expected to keep growing.
Bluett said the trappers’ take amounts to about 13 percent of the estimated river otter population.

“Which is kind of up towards the top end of breaking even from a population standpoint,” he said. “Generally speaking, with a 10 percent harvest, population still manages to increase at a low rate. When you get to 15-20 percent, you start to reduce (population) numbers.”

Bluett said he is “comfortable” with the 13 percent figure, but said, “some people’s perspective was that we had too many otters to begin with.”

‘Good prices don’t hurt’

Mike Gragert of New Douglas, president of the Illinois Trappers Association, said his phone has been ringing constantly as trappers seek information on the upcoming season and the state convention to be held Oct. 4-5 in Carlyle.

“We’ve just been seeing a steady increase (in participation) over the past three or four years,” he said. “I think it is because of several things, but I think a lot of people are looking for a way to connect with the outdoors.”

Gragert said the long-running trapping season provides opportunities beyond the two weekends of shotgun deer-hunting season, for example.

Trapping season is almost five months long — although winter weather likely will keep trappers indoors for some of that time.

“Most people you talk to who are involved in deer hunting or turkey hunting are looking for another opportunity to get out in the timber,” he said. “And good prices (for pelts) don’t hurt.”

According to DNR figures, the total value of pelts sold (of all species) was over $2.5 million. Raccoon trappers led the way, selling $1.7 million worth of raccoon fur.

River otter pelts brought just over $73 dollars each, totaling $146,746.

Beaver pelts were way up, with 9,708 sold this past season, compared with 5,817 in 2011-12.

Before otter trapping became legal, beaver trappers ran the risk of accidentally catching a river otter because the animals frequent the same habitats.

“A few guys gave up on beaver trapping, afraid they were going to trap otters,” Gragert said, providing one explanation for the rise in beaver pelts sold.

All species experienced increases except weasel and badger.

Gragert said he expects things to moderate this season.

“Sure we want to keep any eye on them,” he said. “We want to manage the resource. That’s the purpose of this.”

Bluett said the river otter now joins a growing list of animals brought back to health in Illinois.

“It was a great success,” he said of the river otter recovery. “Put it on the board with turkey, deer and a bunch of other animals we have restored in this state, and now we are managing their numbers through harvest.”

Chris Young can be reached at 341-8487 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him at twitter.com/ChrisYoungPSO

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