Looking out across what looks like a medium sized pond surrounded by marsh in Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, Department of Natural Resources Biologist Shawn Rossler points out two river otters that are diving below the ice waters to grab a mid-morning snack.
“If you look along that far edge there we have this lowland and we have a couple river otter,” Rossler says.
This scene was not possible just twenty years ago. Because of development and the fact that otters used to be trapped for their fur, the otter population in much of the Midwest dwindled to nearly zero.
Then, wildlife departments started rebuilding wetlands and reintroduced the mammals to the state.
River Otters Are Reintroduced To Indiana
U.S. Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologist Susan Knowles was one of a handful of people who helped with the initial release of river otters at Muscatatuck in January of 1995 as a part of a joint effort between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
“Down here they released 25 of them, and this edge over year, you can imagine was just lined with people. And the otters, we thought they would run for the hills, but instead they jumped in the water and swam right across so everybody could get a good look and they swam back,” Knowles says. It was just a beautiful morning and it was exciting to see that much enthusiasm for bringing back the species to the state of Indiana.”
Rossler says they’re still working to determine the state’s otter population, , but early indications show the population is growing.
“Not only do you see this here at one of the original release sites at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, but this is a more common scene throughout the entire state of Indiana. Now over 80 percent of Indiana counties have river otter,” Rossler says.
From Endangered Species To Nuisance
But a jump in the otter population also means more interactions with humans, and they are not always positive interactions.
Norman McCowan walks around a pond, pointing out remnants of fish—bones, scales and fish heads — that are scattered around the edges of the water. McCowan, who lives in Northeastern Indiana, grows corn, has an orchard, raises chickens, and recently built a three-acre pond that he has stocked with blue gill and catfish. He says he and his family enjoy coming out and fishing. As he has found out, so do otters.
“Last year I had an otter in here and I love otters so I didn’t do anything. I let him eat fish and watched him. Could get within about 30-40 yards of him. I could watch him go under the ice, grab a blue gill and eat it,” McCowan says.
But McCowan says the otter started eating a lot of fish and he was afraid he soon wouldn’t have any fish left.
“I put about $1,200 worth of fish in it again this year and I decided it was time I had to do something. And there’ no good method of trying to keep them away,” McCowan says.
The DNR received 58 complaints about otters last year that was nearly twice the complaints it received the previous year. Rossler says the department is using a variety of methods to try to deal with the animals.
“Removal isn’t the only option, we can talk about fencing, talk about adding more structure to ponds to give more cover for fish so maybe the river otter can’t eat as many or maybe it’s more difficult for them,” Rossler says.
Landowners can also get what’s called a nuisance permit, which is what McCowan has done. The permit allows people to kill or trap the otters. McCowan hopes to trap the otter, then call the DNR to pick it up and euthanize it
While the solution is not ideal, Rossler says interactions are only expected to increase as otters become more common.
“We do have river otter, they are again a natural part of the landscape, which is a good thing, but with that comes education and just working together so that we can have river otters but also minimize those conflicts that we see,” Rossler says.
While conflicts are likely to continue, many biologists still consider the project a success. They often point to 2005, when the river otters were de-listed from the state’s endangered species list.