Otter season more successful than expected

Springfield — Illinois’s inaugural river otter trapping season went off better than expected.

There were 2,002 river otters harvested this year, up from the 1,200 to 1,800 that Bob Bluett, Illinois DNR’s wildlife diversity program manager, estimated might be trapped.

“We’re following up with a survey of successful otter trappers to get a better idea of some things we couldn’t draw out of our permit record sales,” Bluett said.

Trappers were required to purchase a permit within 48 hours of capturing an otter, so Bluett’s estimate of 2,002 otters harvested is just based on the number of permits sold.

One of the main things Bluett said he hopes to learn by the survey is not only when they caught their otters, but if they had been targeting the animals – or if they just caught them while targeting other species, such as beaver and raccoon.

“That’s one of the key pieces we’re looking at with the survey,” Bluett said.

Bluett said the higher harvest number than expected may just be a function of more trappers out this year than the last few years. Since he did the paperwork to start a season in Illinois, fur prices have been rising, which typically brings out more trappers.

“The conditions were a little bit different then,” Bluett said.

Bluett estimates that the state’s river otter population is at about 20,000 otters, scattered throughout the state.

“They’re pretty well distributed,” he said.

Otters, the largest member of the weasel family living in Illinois, were once common during early European settlement, but unregulated harvest and habitat loss caused their decline and they were rare by the early 1900s. The state’s trapping season was closed in 1929, but the population didn’t start to improve until laws were passed to improve water quality in the 1970s.

The species was officially threatened in the state until 1977, and they designated a state endangered species in 1989, when there were probably fewer than 100 living the state at that time, according the Illinois DNR.

But with water and habitat improving, the state undertook a recovery effort, bringing 346 otters to Illinois from Louisiana between 1994 and 1997. The effort was wildly successful, and they are now found in every county. They were delisted in 2004.

By 2009, the DNR estimated the statewide population at 11,000 and on track to reach more than 30,000 by 2014, which necessitated a trapping season.

Meanwhile, Bluett said it was too early to characterize the new additional spring muskrat trapping season, since he has not received all of data yet from the regular trapping survey that goes out every year.

“Surveys are still coming in,” Bluett said, noting that the deadline was May 10.

Asked about the potential for a bobcat season, Bluett said it is hands of the state Legislature. Originally, bobcat and otter trapping seasons were proposed together, or at least at the same time.

While the otter trapping season passed through the General Assembly last year, a bobcat trapping season did not move forward.

“There are a lot of bobcats,” Bluett said, noting that the DNR does not have authority to administer a bobcat season without lawmakers passing legislation allowing a change in the state’s Wildlife Code.

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