River otter comeback continues

September 28, 2018

The North American river otter can weigh as much as 30 pounds and can grow to a length of almost 4½ feet.

Their sleek muscular bodies and webbed toes make them very efficient underwater swimmers, stirring the water up and chasing prey, as they roll and make quick turns in their pursuit.

The otter can hold its breath for as long as eight minutes and can cover some distance as it swims.

Fish, frogs and crayfish are a big part of the diet of the otter, a carnivore, a predator with strong jaws and sharp teeth. Otters also will take birds or other animals that are near the water.

The river otter is a symbol or totem of many Native American groups. The Pottawatomie, who lived in the Illinois, Indiana and Michigan area in pre-state times, and the Seminole people see the river otter as one of their clan animals. The Ojibwe called the river otter Nigig and its’ skin, teeth and claws were used in their medicine bundles. The otter was hunted and trapped for its meat and skin; the skins were respectfully turned into pipe bags, pouches and quivers by the indigenous people of North America.

Once a common sight in Illinois, the river otter was all but wiped out by the mid 1800s, as human expansion continued and the settlers cleared and drained the wetlands.

With no regulations and the wholesale trapping and shooting of these semiaquatic creatures, any sightings were becoming quite rare. Most ponds, lakes and rivers were void of this remarkable animal, and they now were sadly missing from most of Illinois with the exception of the Cache River area in the far southwest and along the Mississippi in the northwestern part of the state. Trapping eventually was closed for river otter in 1929.

The river otter was listed as endangered, and the future for the North American river otter was not looking good in Illinois. The population had shrunk to an all time low, and there only were a few areas that held the total population of this species for the state, which was believed to be as low as 100.

But there was hope as things were changing throughout Illinois — the health of our natural resources had improved — this presented an opportunity for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Conservation efforts on wetlands, combined with the laws enacted throughout the past decade to improve water quality in the rivers and streams in Illinois were paying off, and by the mid-90s, improved habitats existed where beaver were thriving, and beaver dams helped create wetlands with healthy aquatic systems, and these positive changes to our natural areas were great news for the otter.

Reintroduction efforts were in the works for the DNR from 1994 through 1997, with the release of captured river otters from Louisiana being released in central and southeastern Illinois. Around that same time, the Indiana DNR was reintroducing river otter to a few watersheds. Today, we see the results of those efforts, which would not have been possible without the conservation laws of the 1970s.

The American river otter has expanded north and west in Illinois and into northeastern Illinois most likely out of Indiana, using ditches and creeks and the Kankakee and Iroquois rivers.

Today, in Illinois, river otters can be found in every county with an overall population that might be greater than 20,000 and possibly as high as 30,000.

Recent sightings of river otters in our general area have been reported in Newton County, Ind., where Jed Hertz photographed a pair on Aug. 30 at the Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Area. Also observed, a single otter at the White Oak Slough of the LaSalle FWA along the Kankakee River.

Jed recently encountered an otter east of Kankakee, in Kankakee County, on Sept. 14. I was able to photograph that particular individual over a number of days while observing its ability to hunt.

The otter certainly seems to be an effective hunter, catching large and small frogs along with a number of fish. The small prey was consumed on the fly, but a large bullfrog or fish required two to five minutes to consume before the hunt would continue.

Trapping reinstated

The incredible high quality of its fur nearly doomed the North American river otter, but successful restoration efforts have brought it back from endangered status in Illinois and other states.

After successful restoration efforts, trapping of river otter was reinstated in 2012 in Illinois after being prohibited since 1929.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources trapping limit is five otter per year. Trapping also has been legalized in Indiana and other states in the lower Midwest, with federal law requiring that each otter pelt be tagged with CITES tags required by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Wild Fauna.

In Illinois, trappers reported selling 1,506 otter pelts in the first season, 2012-13 and 1,388 in 2017-17, the most recently reported season.

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