New York State's Campaign Against Otters

Otters might be one of the most delightful animals to watch, but the State of New York dedicates its resources to minimizing your chances of seeing one. The state's Department of Environmental Conservation conserves otters so that they can be trapped. Even its program to restore otters to Western New York is geared for the long term to trapping. Trapping is one way some people "enjoy" wildlife, but trapping otters is doubly sad. The animal dies and in the process of trapping no one sees the otter swim, dive, or slide in the snow. The trapper scouts out otter habitat, sets a trap, the trap kills the otter and the trapper returns to collect the corpse and sell the pelt.

Several trappers have read this web page and reacted with e-mails excoriating me in no uncertain terms. Save your electricity. The Federal and State governments support you, as do most wildlife biologists. I do not advise anyone to interfere with legal trapping. My sole point is that my observations, and those of others who try to study otters through visual observation, suggests that the trapping season for otters is too long, and is equivalent to hunting deer in late May and June when does are having and caring for fawns. I think the root of the problem is that when the same state agency that regulates and sponsors research also regulates hunting, fishing and trapping, then, given the considerable clout of the sportsmen's lobby, that research is not likely to be objective. Indeed, I would think any sportsmen interested in increasing the amount of game would insist that research be blind to the traditions of the sport and any ill informed hot air that insists that those traditions be respected at all costs. That said, I am proud of my sharing photos of wild otters, like this pup trying out its teeth:

I wish more people could see that. And though I've made less money, nothing, on the video clip below than the four otters' pelts were worth, about $150, I think my sharing this video does more good than trapping the otters and selling their pelts, as likely happened because this occurred in a heavily trapped swamp.

Judging from their publications, the New York DEC scientists would prefer to have those otters dead. The DEC writes to trappers "asking for jaws from harvested otter." As Marie Kautz of the Bureau of Wildlife writes in Notes on Otter Management, "the collections have been voluntary, but we do need a sample of at least 75 jaws annually from each area of the state where harvest occurs. Teeth from these jaws have been x-rayed, and the x-rays are being analyzed at the present time."

Her article was in the DEC's Furbearer Management News, a compendium of tips for trappers, pleas from scientists for carcasses, and the latest news on what prices furs are fetching at market. As Robert F. Gotie of the DEC Bureau of Wildlife writes "a robust economic return for trappers... is good news to both trappers and biologists alike, since a strong world fur market is the key to successful modern day population management of several important furbearers."

At a cursory glance at the DEC literature, it may seem like they are trying to protect otters. They frequently advise beaver trappers how not to take otters; and they have tried to develop modifications to traps to make them less likely to take an otter. However, as long as otters are lumped in with furbearers, the activities of the DEC will work to their long term detriment.

By defining an animal as a furbearer, society is defining that animal by its value to the world of fashion. The three furbearers I am most familiar with, the muskrat, beaver and otter, are quite different. The muskrat is a rodent that is quite prolific, capable of having two litters of six muskrats each a year. A beaver is also a rodent and the a female generally has one large litter. I always see more beaver kits than otter pups. And in the best of years there are four times as many beavers in the swamps I watch than otter visitors. The otter is not a rodent. Not only is it not prolific but all North American otters give birth to their young in at roughly the same time in the early spring, often before the trapping season has closed. (Beaver kits are born later, after the season's close.) And unlike muskrat and beaver kits, young otters need their mother's care for almost a year. Yet the season for trapping otters along the St. Lawrence River in New York begins on November 15 when young otters are just seven months old.

No animal's life cycle so cruelly clashes with the trapping season. By trapping a mother otter in the fall, her pups may also be condemned to die.

I took that photo in late October, a few weeks before trapping season opened. The pups didn't know what to do with me staring at them. Fortunately their mother came out of the rock den below me and jumped to their rescue.

The importance of maternal care can be learned by observation. What I've seen correlates closely to what the nation's foremost otter watcher, Scott Shannon, has learned from his observations. In his web article, "Behavioral Development of Otters," he writes:

Pups attained basic self-sufficiency during weeks 38-42 (circa 9.5 months). The mother usually stopped providing food for the exclusive use of pups around week 38. After week 42, a mother might bite a pup that took food from her, but she would continue to share her food with her offspring until they became independent. After they became self-sufficient, pups foraged frequently on their own. Although the young could satisfy their immediate life requirements adequately by this time, they did not become observably effective in procuring food or utilizing their habitat until after they were abandoned by their mother at 48 weeks (11 months; end of February).

Of course, Shannon is not suggesting that taking otters is all right in March. Here again the biology of the otter distinguishes it from the beaver and muskrat. Although the pattern of otter reproduction was established in the early 50s through field observation, a New York State study established the reproductive cycle of the otter. And a gruesome study it was. Seventy-four female otters trapped between March 12 and April 14 were sent to DEC; only 34 otters were in a condition to be studied (so much for the value of cooperation between trappers and scientists;) in 8 of those otters they found 16 fetuses. Other carcasses showed evidence of recent birthing, so these mothers were killed while caring for their young. The study established March and April as crucial months for otter reproduction, and in response the state continued trapping otters through those months, and still continues to trap then.

Along most of the St. Lawrence River otter trapping continues to April 15. My county, Jefferson County, has a slightly shorter season, November 15 to March 30. So not only are mothers separated from their young too early, the birthing season is also disrupted. And there's yet another reason not to trap in March and April. That's the only time when otters mate. All the activities crucial to the survival of otters occur in March and April.

What is the point of studying the biology of an animal and then ignoring those studies by bowing to tradition? Otters are not like beavers and muskrats, and every wildlife biologist knows that. Yet they are trapped in the same season, for the same reasons. Tradition dictates. People who simply want to see otters, and they are much more exciting to see than beavers and muskrats, are out of luck.

The DEC biologists and most other New York State wildlife biologists are geared to serve trappers. Here is how Kautz justifies the collection of otter jaws: "Why are we doing this? A study conducted recently for a committee of state wildlife biologists established baseline information needs for managing otter populations. The study identified juvenile-to-adult ratios as critical information for successful and defensible otter management." So by having the jaws of dead otters the biologists can tell how many are juveniles and how many adults. Thus they will have numbers in the form of a ratio with which they can explain away the effects of trapping.

This is mumbo-jumbo. Otters need to be enjoyed not managed. They can manage themselves. Shannon outlines the only management plan that gives otters a chance to flourish: "To remove a mother otter before her young attained self-sufficiency could only have a negative effect on pup survivorship and population recruitment. Therefore, female otters should not be killed or translocated until after their pups are 9.5 months old (mid-January). Additionally, because adult females usually give birth around the beginning of April, removal should not take place after this time."

Of course, the key factor in otter management as practiced is the price of otter pelts. While the DEC newsletters have articles on how to avoid trapping otters when trapping beavers, the same pages give the latest price for otter pelts. In 2005 otter pelts could be sole, on average, for about $100. Over the years beaver pelts vary from about $16 to $24. Now who wants to avoid trapping an otter? In the fall of 2004, I talked to a hunter who told me that "guys in St. Lawrence County are shooting otters. The price for pelts is so high." That's illegal, and how do they hide the bullet hole in the pelt? "Oh that's a trick even I learned as a kid with muskrat pelts. Just a little a bad of super glue." Fortunately since then there has been a crash in otter prices. Buyers from China had driven up the price starting in 2000. I know an opal trader who visits Hong Kong regularly and I had him ask the principal furrier there about otter furs. The furrier didn't know anything about them. It seems the principal source of the Chinese demand was for Tibetan folk celebrations. Then the Dalai Lama forbade the use furs, and so the current confusion in the market. In recent auctions, for example, 5000 otters offered were "withdrawn." This could be good news for otters but the pelts were withdrawn probably to prevent a lower price from being set, waiting for the market to adjust to the current confusion. But confusion aside, this erratic global market is the lynch pin of the "scientific" management of otters in New York state. Here is a recent report on the market from North American Fur Auctions:

Herman Jansen reports that the problem between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government still exists and therefore Otter skins are not selling. People are reporting that it is not a matter of price, but that the Tibetans, who are the major consumers of these skins, are not willing to buy. NAFA will therefore have to re-establish new markets for these skins, a process which normally tends to take two years. We would recommend that all of our trappers limit their Otter harvest, as prices most likely will be reduced over last years prices by more than half and maybe as much as two-thirds. It is NAFAs intention to sell all the trapper Otters in the February 2007 auction at no limits, to establish a new market. Please be assured that NAFA will do everything within its power to generate the maximum amount of activity for this important article.

Finally there is the much publicized River Otter Restoration Project in Western New York. As far as I can tell, one of the main goals of the project is to establish an otter population so that trappers in Western New York will have another furbearer to go after. One might argue that that is a price animal lovers have to pay to get state help to restore otters. Two points: it appears that there are otters in Western New York that have nothing to do with the project. Bruce Penrod, Bureau of Wildlife, wrote in a recent report that "Eight otters that were not captured and moved as part of the River Otter Project also have been recovered in the release areas. None of these were likely offspring of the original releases." So the west will get otters even without the restoration project. The west would get more otters if otter trapping were banned in the rest of the state.

Otter lovers pay taxes like everyone else. But the fees that trappers pay dictate the course of wildlife research in New York. Any revenue from trapping should go to the State Department of Commerce, so the DEC can regulate trapping without prejudice. End otter trapping or limit it to from February 1 to March 15, and maybe more New Yorkers will see what I saw as I crossed a beaver dam in June.

An otter coming right at you!

Bob Arnebeck

Wellesley Island, NY

mailto: arnebeck@localnet.com

See J. Scott Shannon's web page and article on otter development: http://otters.net/

Visit my web page on otters: Bob Arnebeck's Web Page on Otters