There were only about 100 wild river otters left in Illinois a few decades ago. However, thanks to the 346 captured otters released in Louisiana in 1994-1997, there are now an estimated 15,000 to 20,000. Considered an endangered species in 1989, the otters were upgraded to threatened in 1999 and, in 2004, they were delisted. It’s a conservation effort to celebrate, or so you’d think.
As the Chicago Tribune reports, this year, for the first time since 1929, otters can be trapped. For $15.50, residents of Illinois can purchase a trapping license and a permit to catch otters whose pelts can then be sold for some $70 apiece. Each person can trap up to five otters.
The price of a successful effort to bring back an endangered species is to start killing them?
The reason for this stark about-face in policy is that the otters are, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, “brazen fish pilferers.” Says Bob Bluett, a wildlife biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources:
When you go to the pond with your grandkids to fish, and you find … fish heads, well, that’s not what you had in mind. We had otters stealing people’s fish out of their baskets, hanging out on the docks. … They have the ability to adapt to people.
It is, though all right for the grandkids to see otter corpses in traps and otter fur removed from the animal it came from and used for hats, coats, who knows what.
In an interview with NPR, Bluett describes the otters, who are about 35 to 53 inches long and weigh about 10 to 25 pounds, as a “beautiful” and “awesome animal.” But the otters have been getting into aquaculture facilities and, in some cases, eating other endangered species, such as one type of fresh water mussel. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources also says that “predation by otters was a major source of mortality for small alligator snapping turtles released in a stream.”
According to Bluett, while some people have raised concerns about the decision to allow otters to be trapped and killed, “people come to realize that they’re wonderful, they’re great, but sometimes too much is too much.”
Of course it is a concern that endangered species are finding themselves prey to the otters. But you have to ask, what are the state of Illinois and those in its Natural Resources department thinking? So many otters are only present in Illinois thanks to human efforts. By saying it is now all right to trap the otters, it seems that the animals were allowed to repopulate and thrive in order to be hunted.
At the very least, Illinois’ turnabout regarding its otter population should be a cautionary tale, about the potential results when animals from one ecosystem (Louisiana’s) are introduced into another and about why conservation efforts must embrace the big picture about now only a single species, but about a whole ecosystem.
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