Overrun By Otters, Illinois Reinstates Trapping Season

More than 15,000 otters in Illinois are pilfering fish from fishermen and disrupting the local ecosystem. To deal with it, the state is allowing an otter trapping season for the first time in 87 years, starting this month. Bob Bluett, a biologist from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, joins Steve Inskeep to talk about the otter inundation.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just over a couple of decades ago, there were fewer than 100 otters remaining in the state of Illinois. Today, there are at least 15,000. They're furry and cute and a nuisance to some, often called the raccoons of Illinois waterways. What's wrong with raccoons? Anyway. So for the first time in almost 90 years, Illinois has reinstated otter trapping season. We called Bob Bluett, a biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

I brought up here, a picture of an otter. And he's awfully cute. He's got the button nose. He's got the widespread eyes. He's got the fur. Really? You guys are trapping those things?

(LAUGHTER)

BOB BLUETT: They are a beautiful animal. They're an awesome animal. But as our otter population has grown - I guess maybe exploded would be a good term for it - we've had some problems with otters getting into the people's ponds and killing the fish. And getting into aquaculture facilities, where people are raising fish for stocking and things like that.

It was kind of funny. A few years after we did our last release, the biologist from Cook County, where Chicago is, called me up. And he said, Bob, I just have to tell you. The first time I've seen this I saw one endangered animal eating another. And it was a river otter eating an endangered species of a fresh water mussel.

So some animals in our modified environment do really well. And the otter's been one of those. But there's also a need to try to keep things in balance.

INSKEEP: How was it that otters became endangered in the first place? Were they targeted by humans?

BLUETT: Yes. At the time - I mean, if we go back 200 years, there were no game laws in the state. So anybody could go out and pretty much kill anything, anytime they wanted to. It was listed as a state endangered species in the 1980s. And at that time, they thought that there were probably about 100 river otters in the state.

INSKEEP: So what happened?

BLUETT: There was an entrepreneur, Leroy Sevantl, from Louisiana who had figured out how to capture river otters with foothold traps without causing serious injuries to them. And he knew that states were wanting river otters for recovery efforts. So he kind of expanded his operation. He trained other trappers how to capture river otters using his methods. And he became the supply chain for most of the releases that occurred in the Midwest, like Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana.

INSKEEP: So the otters were re-released. Did it then go too far in Illinois?

BLUETT: We certainly have made great gains. We estimate our statewide population is about 15,000 to 20,000 river otters right now. So the population has just done super. A lot better, perhaps, than anybody expected.

INSKEEP: Have you had any negative reaction to allowing a trapping season for this animal that really does look like it could be a Disney character without any alterations done?

(LAUGHTER)

BLUETT: We've had some people express concerns, but this wasn't something that just came up overnight. We had to go through a legislative process to have a season. We had to go through an administrative rule process. We had to go through federal oversight, to not only check out our biology and make sure we're doing things responsibly, but also check out whether or not our regulations were consistent with an international treaty. And I think, also, you know, people come to realize that they're wonderful, they're great, but sometimes too much is too much.

INSKEEP: OK. Mr. Bluett, thanks very much for taking the time.

BLUETT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Bob Bluett is a biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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