Otters, other wildlife become victims of their own recovery

This river otter had its picture taken at the zoo in Columbus, Ohio, but other Ohio otters might soon become hunted as their populations explode.Tim Daniel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The river otter, that wily and playful critter adored by the public, is overrunning Ohio.

Now, wildlife officials there are finding themselves in the same predicament as their counterparts in other states: killing a species once on the verge of vanishing.

In Florida and New Jersey, it’s the black bear. The Rockies and Alaska have the gray wolf. Nearly everywhere else, it’s the white-tailed deer and Canada goose.

“In a human-dominated landscape, it’s really tough to keep wildlife in the numbers we feel are appropriate,” said Greg Butcher, a zoologist with the Washington-based National Audubon Society. “We have affected the environment so much that a lot of natural checks and balances are gone.”

Trapping season proposed
The otter’s numbers have soared in just two decades — from 123 to about 4,300 — and Ohio wildlife officials are proposing a permit-only trapping season that would run Dec. 26 to Feb. 28, 2006, in 43 counties. Eight citizens who make up the Ohio Wildlife Council vote on the proposal in April.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that wildlife causes $1 billion in crop and livestock damage each year, while deer collisions injure about 29,000 motorists a year and cost another $1 billion. Bird collisions cost the aviation industry $740 million annually.

The otter’s story is familiar. Overtrapping drove the native species from Ohio by the early 1900s, but their reintroduction — starting in 1986 and lasting seven years — has been so successful that farmers are starting to complain. After all, a family of otters can eat half the fish in a privately stocked pond before the owner gets wind of their visits.

“If they find a nice trout farm, they’re pretty happy with that,” said C. Greg Anderson, assistant biology professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.

Otters used to be in every state but Hawaii but were wiped out over 70 percent of their range, Anderson said. Reintroduction programs began in the 1980s in 21 states, all successes. Missouri, one of the first with 19 otters released in 1982, now has more than 10,000 and allows trapping, he said. Kentucky began its first otter season this winter, running through February.

Wolf, bear, dear hunts
Government-sanctioned hunting of all kinds of animals is proliferating across the country.

Starting in February, private landowners in Montana and Idaho won’t need written approval to kill gray wolves harassing livestock, while Wyoming is suing the federal government to get its wolf management plan approved. From about 30 wolves introduced 10 years ago, 825 or more now live in the three states.

Florida wildlife officials reported a record number of sightings of threatened black bears in 2004 because of sprawling development and busier roads. The state is studying the bear population and could lift its protected status this year.

New Jersey’s second annual bear hunt was called off this year amid a dispute over the state’s management plan. New Jersey has more than 3,000 bears, up from fewer than 100 in the 1970s.

Hunting groups once feared the disappearance of white-tailed deer, but management encouraging reproduction worked too well. Last fall, the Cleveland suburb of Solon became the latest Ohio community to hire sharpshooters to cull the prolific landscape munchers.

Case of Canadian geese
Few success stories compare with that of the giant strain of Canada goose, which was nearly extinct in the 1960s because of hunting and lack of their preferred grassland habitat.

In the Midwest, restrictions on hunting coincided with the explosion of office parks with manicured lawns and lush golf courses. The birds, with their 6-foot wingspans, are now fouling picnic spots with green manure and hissing and nipping at golfers. States from North Dakota to Pennsylvania have expanded hunting allowances.

While some see overpopulation as triumph over extinction, the Animal Protection Institute sees it as failure on the part of wildlife officials. Reintroduction of a native animal requires planning to prevent an overrun, said Barbara Schmitz of the Sacramento, Calif.-based institute.

“A lot of times, lethal solutions are looked at first,” Schmitz said. “It is possible for them to become part of the balance of nature again.”