In the company of otters
Just over 20 years after a team of Hoosier biologists reintroduced these sleek mammals, they're thriving in our rivers and streams.
A car rolls gently along a gravel road.
You’re sitting in the passenger seat as Donna Stanley, a park ranger at the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, drives her Ford Escape parallel to a wetland area on the refuge.
The rays of the early-morning sun flash on the water’s surface.
A quick splash catches your eye and you focus on a spot about 50 feet away. Stanley slows the car, stops and puts it in park.
You sit, window rolled down and camera out, catching a glimpse of an animal once forgotten in these parts.
A North American river otter, unperturbed by your presence, gnaws on a fish. Stanley moves the car even closer. You snap pictures of its sleek frame and dark, rich brown fur as it slides into the water and back out again, a new fish in its grasp every time.
Today, river otters thrive in 87 percent of Indiana counties, but a little over 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have stopped driving.
RIVER OTTERS WERE said to have disappeared in Indiana twice in the 20th century, unofficially in 1942, when the scientific community believed no otters were left, and officially in 1986, before efforts by Indiana’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program rescued the species. Now Hoosiers can spot these energetic, playful creatures across the state.
The success of the reintroduction effort, which included 12 releases at separate sites in six different watersheds, including Muscatatuck, between 1995 and 1999, can be seen in the otters’ steady population growth.
By 2005, reported sightings placed otters in 65 of Indiana’s 92 counties. Three years later, that number rose to 71, and as of 2015, it’s climbed to 80.
Of course, some counties have more otters than others. Counties where the release sites are located, and those contiguous to them, boast a more abundant population. So do counties in the northern and southern parts of the state, which have more wetland areas.
The otters themselves are a highly social and mobile bunch. Romps, or groups of otters, may be found sliding around in snow or mud or playing in the water, chirping to communicate with one another.
Onlookers may find them engaged in such horseplay at any point throughout the year, as otters, who tend to live to be 8 or 9 in the wild and grow to 3 or 4 feet in length, don’t hibernate. Family groups usually consist of a mother and an average litter of three pups, but don’t be surprised to see a host of males gallivanting around.
These excursions allow the otters to strengthen their social bonds and assist younger ones in practicing their hunting techniques.
“The relationship between an animal and its environment is complicated,” Stanley says, “but we know that every animal has a role, and the return of otters to Indiana should make our wild lands more natural places.”
THE RIVER OTTER reintroduction effort was captained by nongame wildlife biologist Scott Johnson, who joined the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in 1986. Now 58, Johnson used insights gleaned from similar projects in Ohio, Illinois, Iowa and Kentucky.
“They did a lot of the heavy lifting, those states,” Johnson says. “We learned a lot from them. It was just a matter of finding what we believed would be our ideal restoration watersheds.”
Johnson’s team found six watersheds, areas that drain into a waterway, where the otters could be released. They compared factors such as water quality, availability of wetlands and fish population, and Muscatatuck rose to the top of the list.
Just southeast of Seymour, Muscatatuck spans more than 7,700 acres, 30 percent of which are wetlands. Protected areas as large as this were essential in the early years of the reintroduction, as river otters require a large landscape and tend to spread out over available territory.
Since otters tend to fall prey to traps, even those targeting other animals, like the beaver, the biologists teamed up with trappers to ensure each chosen area had restricted trapping regulations.
A lack of those regulations is part of the reason otters disappeared in the 20th century.
“Otters were considered unlimited,” Johnson says. “There was no limit on their take. Same with deer and beaver and a lot of others. State game agencies hadn’t been sanctioned or developed yet.”
But for all practical purposes, Johnson says, the otters’ fate was sealed in the 1800s. Habitat destruction, pollution and unregulated trapping led to their extinction in Indiana. The trapping was especially harmful, as the quality of otter fur made it highly sought after in the fur market.
“It was the wild, wild West,” Johnson says.
It took a promising feasibility study in 1993 and the anticipation of the first reintroduction release in 1995 for otters to be moved back to the endangered species list in Indiana in 1994. Although river otters were extinct in Indiana at the time, Johnson says they needed to be reclassified before the release in order to have protection from the start.
ON THE MORNING of January 17, 1995, school children poured off buses and gathered with other members of the public around a roped-off area at Muscatatuck.
The sun shown bright as DNR officials took one cage at a time, two otters per cage, out of a truck and set the critters loose.
As the 25 river otters, 15 male and 10 female, scampered off, chatter turned to a chorus of cheers, clapping and the clicking of cameras. The pictures captured not just the beginning the Indiana reintroduction, but the end of a journey for these animals.
The Indiana DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife had purchased each otter for $400 from Louisiana during that state’s trapping season in January and deposited them with staff and volunteers at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
The team, led by now professor emeritus Wallace Morrison, comprised doctors, technicians, dentists and some civilians, including Morrison’s wife. They spent the next 24 hours prepping the otters for release.
They fed the otters restaurant-quality fish, Morrison remembers, and treated them in a laboratory normally used as a classroom. Fifteen of the otters had transmitters embedded under their skin so the DNR could track their movements.
Morrison, who saw his first otter when the initial group arrived at Purdue, shares people’s fascination with the creature, but doesn’t consider them cuddly. “They are absolutely adorable to look at, but they’re very wild animals and incredible hunters,” Morrison says. “They’ve got powerful jaws, and the last thing you’d ever want is to be bitten by an otter.”
The team provided medical care for Johnson’s otters, mostly for free, and Morrison likes to hear that a new generation is now cruising along the surface of the Wabash River near his home. Apparently, his former patients followed through with his desire for them “to make a lot of babies and stick around for a while.”
More than 300 otters passed through the lab between January 1995 and February 1999, and watching them scamper off was bittersweet for Morrison. At the first release he said he couldn’t help but think those cute and cuddly creatures deserved to star in their own Walt Disney movie.
You feel like you’re saying goodbye to your children,” Morrison says.
THERE ISN'T ANY way, according to Johnson, to compile an accurate estimate of Indiana’s river otter population. But there are ways to see the population is increasing.
“We track things we call indices,” Johnson says. “We track things like the number of otters that were reported trapped, the number of otters that might be hit on roads.”
There were fewer than 50 mortality reports each year from 1995 to 2005, but that jumped to 75 by 2009, 100 by 2011 and 125 in 2012. DNR records classify the deaths as either trapped, road-kill or other, with the most common cause of death being incidental trapping.
Initially, the DNR staff conducted surveys each winter, checking bridges and streams for tracks after a fresh snow. They also looked for riverbank slides, where otters slip into the water, and fecal matter. The latter is usually a mash of fish bones. These animals are skilled anglers who put us humans to shame, Stanley says.
“There have been times when a fisherman will be out for hours and catch nothing and then see a river otter pop in and out of the water with a fish.”
Fish constitute 90 percent of a river otter’s diet, and an otter’s high metabolism means it must feed frequently. The otter uses its tail, which generally makes up a third of the otter’s length, to propel itself underwater. Its whiskers help it detect prey in dark or cloudy water, and its clawed feet grasp the next meal.
It helps that otters aren’t too picky.
“It’s not like they’re selecting a particular species or size class,” Johnson says. “They’re typically going to go for the most abundant fish, make a quick flush and if they get it fine. If not, they’ll look for someone else.”
Most river otters don’t search too hard for homes either, commonly taking over old beaver dens or natural cavities in trees along the banks. Those that do care are females with young; they’ll find a protected spot to raise their pups.
A year after the first release, DNR discontinued tracking the otters with transmitters because the first batch of otters behaved as expected. Physical tracking continued until 2007, when road kill and trapping statistics became more reliable.
“We didn’t expect any problems getting them established,” Johnson says, “because we used techniques that were proven elsewhere.”
TWENTY YEARS AFTER the first otters slipped into Muscatatuck’s ponds and streams, the state established the first limited trapping season.
It began on November 15, 2015, and concluded on March 15, 2016, encompassing all but certain counties in central Indiana. A quota of 600 otters, with a limit of two per trapper, was set and met. Johnson said the practice of trapping is a recreational activity for many and one way to manage the rising population and the problems that can come with that. From 2011 to 2013, the number of damage complaints the DNR received due to river otters rose from 34 to 86. These complaints usually arise when otters harm private property or snatch fish from private ponds and commercial fish hatcheries.
Johnson, who trapped game animals growing up and traps now for research purposes, is in favor of the limited trapping season and sees the 600-otter quota as very conservative.
Morrison acknowledges trappers in Indiana were cooperative during the reintroduction process, but, as a veterinarian, he opposes trapping and finds it hard to believe otters have become abundant enough to warrant it. He mailed in his opposition to the new season when DNR sought public comment. “I did not want to see that,” Morrison says. “I wasn’t in favor of trapping at this time.”
YOU'RE OUT ON the refuge again, this time alone.
After speaking with Dan Kaiser, who’s traveled to Muscatatuck for 10 years to take pictures of wildlife, you know to stay on Muscatatuck’s driving tour and keep a look out along the banks of the streams.
Kaiser doesn’t go for the sole purpose of finding otters, but he’s glad when he does.
“It just seems like they’re playing all the time if they aren’t eating or sleeping,” Kaiser says. “They’re so communal, always in motion climbing over each other. Sometimes I find their actions comedic.”
The sun provides just enough light for your car lights to stay off. Early excursions, before the sun’s a prominent fixture in the sky, have the highest probability of ending in an otter encounter. Although, nothing’s ever certain.
Some people see them every time,” Stanley says. “Some never.”
Today you’re in luck. An otter glides smoothly to your left as you drive west, away from Richart Lake. You come to an abrupt stop, yet the noise of the wheels on gravel doesn't disturb the peaceful critter.
It’s become accustomed to inquisitive visitors.
he otter dips below the surface, so you take the opportunity to move closer. Their eyes are adapted for underwater vision, so otters are near-sighted out of the water.
Now 20 feet away, you begin to truly appreciate the efforts of those involved in ensuring river otters would roam Indiana lands once again.
“The DNR’s otter reintroduction program,” Morrison says, “like the reintroduction of bald eagles some years earlier, represents another important step in the restoration of the rich fabric of Indiana’s natural world.”