Growing Population

River otters
make comeback in Indiana

Madison’s Big Oaks is among
locations of recent otter release

By Lela Jane Bradshaw
Contributing Writer

(January 2013) – Today, wildlife lovers in Jefferson County, Ind., have the chance to enjoy a creature that was absent from the Indiana landscape for more than 50 years. Thanks to efforts by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and officials at Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, area residents once again have the chance to see river otters in the wild. Joe Robb, Refuge Manager at Big Oaks, has often had the opportunity to observe the animals as part of his work. He describes the creatures as “a lot of fun to watch, very playful, curious.”


Photo courtesy of Big Oaks N.W.R.

River otters have been
successfully repopulated
throughout Indiana, including
Big Oaks National Wildlife
Refuge in Madison, Ind.

As of 1942, river otters were considered to have died out in the state. They were victims of many of the same challenges that endangered wildlife face today. Robb explains that a variety of factors lead to the demise of otters in Indiana, including habitat loss, river pollution resulting in decreased quality of otter habitats, and simple over harvesting of the animals by trappers.
However, by the 1990s decreased pollution gave officials hope that the otters might once again be successful in Indiana if given another chance. Robb notes that “habitat surveys found that the habitat quality had come back,” and these studies led wildlife officials to move forward with attempts to reintroduce otters to the state.
Between 1995 and 2000 wildlife officials released 303 otters at 12 Indiana sites in the southern and northern parts of the state. In 1996, 25 river otters, including one pregnant female, were released at the Jefferson Proving Ground, now home to Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge.
In 1999, an additional four males and two females were brought in to supplement the population. These original 303 otters were relocated from Louisiana, and their offspring have proven so successful throughout Indiana that in 2005 they were able to be removed from the state’s endangered species list.
In a press release, Scott Johnson, a nongame biologist with the Indiana DNR, reports on the success of the release program saying, “It’s now been seven years since delisting, and all our information indicates the otter population continues to expand.”
Otters have now moved beyond their release sites not only to occupy nearby rivers and streams but have also moved into central Indiana counties where the habitat was not considered ideal. The Indiana DNR recently announced that river otters are now found in 80 percent of the state’s counties, marking a return to much of their historic range. Robb is pleased to report that “Otters are commonly sighted on Big Oaks NWR in all the streams and pond and Old Timbers Lake.”
While watching otters at play in the wild is a memorable experience, they can be a bit difficult for casual wildlife enthusiasts to see up close. One of the challenges for viewing otters is the fact that they tend to be nocturnal. Robb estimates that visitors get to see the animals on about one out of every 20 tours given at Big Oaks. However, those hoping to see the animals do not necessarily have to travel to a designated park or refuge as the animals have spread throughout area waterways.
Robb recommends that people who have creeks or streams on their property to keep an eye out for signs or tracks by the water in order to get an idea of areas that the otters frequent. Then wildlife watchers can “find the slides and narrow down where they’re hanging out,” allowing observers a better chance of catching the animals at play.
The coming months are a particularly good time to try and get a look at otters in the wild. “They tend to be more active when it’s snowing,” Robb explains.
The snowfall holds tracks and slide marks. During the cold weather, otters also help regulate the population of invasive fish with their hunting.
“Especially in the winter time, they take care of rough fish – carp. They really hit those during the winter time” when those fish get a bit more sluggish, Robb said.
While the otters are a delight to many wildlife watchers and help combat invasive species of fish, their reintroduction has raised a few challenges. Robb explains that some property owners have been saddened to find that their collections of ornamental goldfish make for an attractive meal to the otters. The animals can also prove problematic when they make commercial fisheries part of their hunting grounds or when they destroy landscaping.
Trappers of beavers and raccoons are expected to make efforts to minimize their chances of capturing otters, since it is illegal to take or possess them. While there is no penalty for accidentally trapping an otter, any capture must be reported to a conservation officer. Uninjured otters should be released, and any carcasses must be turned over to officials.
The success of the reintroduction of the otters is thanks to the hard work and cooperation of a variety of wildlife officials and stands as a testament to the improvement of Indiana waterways in recent years. While there are many environmental reasons to celebrate the return of the otters, there is also the simple fact that as Refuge Manager Robb says, “They are just a joy to see.”

• For more information, visit: www.IN.gov and search “river otter.”

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