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What An Otter Trapping Season Would Look Like

Twenty years after the river otter was reintroduced to Indiana, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources is considering legalizing otter trapping.

While trappers are thrilled about the prospect of catching river otters for their pelts, other Hoosiers fear that history will repeat itself and the animal will once again be eliminated from the state.

To understand the debate, we really need to look at how Indiana got here.

The Return Of The River Otter

River otters used to be abundant in Indiana, but by the early 1940s, fur trappers and development had eliminated river otters in the state.

Then, in 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Indiana DNR transported 303 otter from Louisiana and released them at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in Central Indiana and several other locations around the state.

Now, the otters have multiplied and live in more than 80 percent of Indiana's counties.

"They belong here. Man came in and did things to destroy their habitat over the years so we're glad to have them back," says U.S. Fish and Wildlife private land biologist Susan Knowles, who participated in the first otter release at Muscatatuck.

But now, otters are becoming a problem.

Starke County resident John VanHorn is a hunter, fisherman and self-declared nature lover. The centerpiece of VanHorn's backyard is a large pond. He stocks it with bluegill and catfish, so he and his family can fish and enjoy the wildlife in their backyard.

That is, until recently, when otters moved in.

"I went down there and chased them around the pond so I was pretty close to them, but they weren't afraid of me," he says. "I got a good look at them, and they were really neat looking but being neat looking and costing me money isn't the thing."

VanHorn even tried to chase them off by firing a gun into the water, but they kept coming back, so he eventually had to sit by while the river otters ate the fish he bought to stock his pond.

VanHorn's story is becoming more common.

In 2013, the DNR received 86 river otter complaints, up from 69 in 2012 and 34 in 2011.

That's why the DNR is now proposing letting Hoosiers trap them.

"To me it would just be the ideal thing to catch something that was endangered years ago."

- Don Kolley

"Illinois Kentucky, Ohio, they have all reintroduced river otter and they all have regulated trapping seasons," says DNR fur biologist Shawn Rossler. "So we looked at all of their experiences and, essentially going last, we were able to see the good and bad that had been done and come up with a really good plan after consulting with biologists from other states."

The proposed otter trapping season would run from November through March.

For at least the first year there would be a cap of 600 otters total and 2 otters per person. Trappers would have to register with the state before and after catching an otter.

There would also be regulations as to who the trappers could sell the fur to.

How To Trap A River Otter

With his long, gray beard that nearly reaches his stomach, Don Kolley looks like one of the men out of Duck Dynasty.

The temperature is near freezing here in Southern Indiana, but Kolley doesn't seem to mind. It's sunny at least, and he is excited to be outdoors setting traps for beaver and muskrat.

Kolley knows this land like the back of his hand and quickly spots a place he says is perfect for a beaver trap.

A piece of land separates two ponds and on that land there is a one-foot-wide strip that leads from one pond to the next. The grass and leaves have given way to mud because of repeated wear.

It's the place a beaver crosses from one pool of water to the next, Kolley explains.

Then, he takes what looks like a lasso attached to an iron rod. He sticks the rod into the ground so the lasso is hanging just over the beaver's path.

"The beaver will just walking his little path here. When he puts his head in here and his shoulders come up, the snare will drop down and catch him," Kolley says as he demonstrates how the trap works.

After catching the beaver, Kolley will skin it and sell its

fur, but he says it isn't worth much these days. He says he's lucky if he gets his money back in supplies and gas.

Trapping is more of a hobby, and a way to keep his family tradition alive. Kolley has has been trapping since he was a young boy and says it's a family tradition he wants to keep going.

He soon hopes to be able to trap otters as well.

"To me it would just be the ideal thing to catch something that was endangered years ago and has been brought back to Indiana," he says. "Personally, I'd just really like to see it for my grandchildren."

Kolley says trappers are invested in good management practices for all wildlife, including the otter.

Kolley's local trapping organization donated money in the 1990s to help the DNR bring the river otters back to Indiana. He says trappers have also made their traps more humane in recent years, and he assures they‘re made so they don't unintentionally trap dogs or other pets.

"Wildlife has a purpose, why destroy it?"

- Greg Griffin

Others still have concerns. At a public hearing on the trapping proposal, Greg Griffin spoke against the proposal, saying he was worried history will repeat itself and the river otter will once again disappear from Indiana.

"Why not move those river otters?" he asked. "Trap them in a more humane way without killing them and taking them to areas where there are no river otters. Wildlife has a purpose, why destroy it?"

Other attendees, including a representative from the Humane Society, agreed, calling trapping "barbaric."

Supporters of trapping counter that other states with trapping seasons have still seen an increase in their river otter populations, and biologists say even if an otter trapping season isn't approved, the DNR will have to come up with something to keep the otter population from getting out of hand.

"Just like what happens with a lot of species, white tailed deer or the Canadian geese, anytime those populations get higher sometimes there's a little bit of an erosion of public support for those species and so that's our responsibility to manage those species," DNR biologist Shawn Rossler says.

The Indiana National Resources Commission is currently reviewing the proposal and could decide whether to approve it as early as January 20.

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