By Emily Bastaroli, Point Park News Service:
Mostly native to Northern Pennsylvania, the river otter was almost extirpated in many regions of the state by the mid-1900s. However, restoration efforts allowed for successful population recovery in 1982.
Now the Pennsylvania Game Commission is drafting an Otter Management Plan and accepting public comments.
“[The purpose of] the Otter Management Plan is to make sure the species maintains a stable population,” Travis Lau, the press secretary for the PA Game Commission, said.
The plan has four goals, as outlined in the draft: Maintain sustained otter populations within suitable habitats; minimize otter damage complaints; increase public awareness and knowledge of the benefits of otters and their habitats; and develop guidelines to assess river otter harvest feasibility while implementing a harvest management plan.
Although river otters were almost wiped out in Northeastern Pennsylvania, a 1980 reintroduction program was successful as the environment improved, Lau said. The otter population has grown enough to implement a management plan, which normally focuses on the more populated species.
“Otters are adaptable enough to live in rivers, marshlands, creeks,” Lau said. “If they have a prolific population, we believe we can allow for a trapping or harvesting season.”
Dr. Tomas Serfass, a professor in the department of biology and natural resources at Frostburg State University, was the leader in the otter reintroduction efforts in the 1980s. As an undergraduate, Serfass worked with a team in Northeastern Pennsylvania investigating the species and their environment in what he called a “fortuitous interaction,” as they handled all aspects of live capture, veterinary care and transportation.
Serfass had heard word of the Game Commission’s Otter Management Plan through news releases and after learning about the four goals, he said the first two are typical of any kind of species management plan. However, the second goal was something he also saw a lot.
“I’ve noticed recently, in general, when there is an effort to harvest on a predatory species, people tend to focus on the problems,” Serfass said in a phone interview. “But the Game Commission has no real info on the problems (they may cause). A bad attitude toward a predator tends to make [harvesting] more acceptable.”
While the exact number of the otter population in Pennsylvania is yet to be determined, the Game Commission has methods of keeping track. Any time an otter is inadvertently trapped it must be reported to the Game Commission. They also try to keep track of any otter road kills.
“It remains to be seen what’s going to happen as far as a trapping season,” Lau said.
Lau said that trapping is permitted for furbearers, or animals whose furs will be sold. Otters are very desirable furbearers, according to the 56-page plan.
“Otter pelts are valued because of their durability in garments,” it states. “They are the standard against which other furs are rated for durability (river otters = 100 percent durability).”
These trapping seasons are mostly reserved for foxes, beavers, minks and bobcats, and most are regulated through a limited number of permits on how many can be trapped.
Harvesting means allowing a certain number of animals of a particular species to be trapped through the season. The deer management plan is the most-recognized of these practices. Lau said the number of animals taken out of the population is regulated by the Game Commission.
“In Pennsylvania, we consider all wildlife a shared resource,” Lau said. “(Harvesting) allows an individual to take their share of the resource.”
While this may be a possibility for the otters in the future, there is some controversy over the issue. Henry Kacprzyk, the curator of Kids Kingdom and Reptiles at the Pittsburgh Zoo, said the Game Commission is “jumping” into the idea of harvesting.
“The point [of the management plans] is to manage populations,” Kacprzyk said. “I don’t think we’re close to (harvesting) currently. But it’s good to have a plan.”
Serfass also said his biggest concern with the management plan was the possibility of harvesting, as people argue otters are beneficial to the environment.
“Otters have allowed us to focus on the importance of high quality aquatic systems,” Serfass said. “The otter is a symbol for protecting aquatic environments.”
Serfass said the otter getting voted to be on the Pennsylvania license plate by popular vote, was very gratifying for him. He also explained a lot of local outdoor organizations are using the otter as a symbol to promote water quality, including areas in North Central Pennsylvania, Pine Creek and Southwestern Pennsylvania.
“Otters are becoming a flagship,” Serfass said.
Lau said that the “time is right” but the decision to start harvesting and trapping otters would ultimately be left up to a board of commissioners who will make the final version of the plan. If this were to happen, he said, it would be very limited. Wildlife Management biologists are constantly collecting data on the numbers trapped and killed to get a better understanding of the otter numbers.
“Biologists are confident of opening a trapping season (in the future). It would not hurt the population,” Lau said.
The Commission is collected comments to the Otter Management Plan via email, phone or snail mail, and the comment period closed on Nov. 29. The Game Commission’s Wildlife Management board of commissioners will discuss the plan and make the final decisions at a public meeting in January.
This story was produced for The Allegheny Front to mark the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.