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Illinois hunting and fishing

River otters were released between 1994 and 1997 into the Illinois, Kaskaskia and Wabash River basins. Photo by T.J. Salsman

River otter trapping resumes this fall after 80-year hiatus

September 05, 2012 at 06:35 PM

The State Journal-Register

This fall will mark the first trapping season for river otters in Illinois since 1929.

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

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

“That’s when we knew it was time to start managing the resource again and get a season and move forward on it,” said Mike Gragert of New Douglas, president of the Illinois Trappers Association.

Trapping season for river otters begins Nov. 5 in the north zone, north of Interstate 72, and Nov. 10 in the south zone.

During reintroduction efforts, 346 otters were relocated from Louisiana to the Illinois, Kaskaskia and Wabash River basins. Couple that with expanding populations from surrounding states, and Illinois’ river otters multiplied.

Population climbing

Bob Bluett, furbearer biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said efforts to establish a trapping season took several years.

A study by Southern Illinois University attempted to estimate numbers by examining road-killed otters and those inadvertently caught in traps.

In 2009, Illinois was home to an estimated 11,000 otters. That number was expected to grow beyond 30,000 by 2014, according to DNR.

“It’s hard to put a nose count on wildlife, but there are ways to estimate it,” Bluett said. “We found we pretty much had more otters than we ever imagined.

“It was clear that biologically we could sustain a harvest.”

Gragert said DNR deserves a lot of credit for helping bring back the river otter.

“It’s really a success story for the state of Illinois,” he said. “When you consider everything that has happened during the past few years with the cutbacks at the DNR, one of the bright spots DNR can brag about is the recovery of the river otter.”

$80-$100 per pelt

Bluett said part of DNR’s job is to respond to the needs of people who come into contact with wildlife.

“Our job is not only to restore rare species and to provide recreational opportunities, but also consider the people part of the equation,” he said. “And that includes the landowners that may be having problems.”

Gragert said a good quality river otter pelt could bring $80 to $100, but trappers have to follow rules set by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. A CITES-tagged pelt tells authorities it is from a river otter in North America, not an endangered species from another part of the world.

Gragert said trappers manage wildlife populations the same way hunters do.

“The reason you have a deer season is to control the numbers,” Gragert said. “It’s the same thing with the furbearers.

“If we can help control the numbers during a regular harvest season, that should reduce the number of nuisance complaints down the line.”

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.

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