River otters were once both widespread and populous across the United States, especially along the Mississippi River and its tributaries and the Eastern seaboard. Their range extended upwards through the Great Lakes as well, and into much of Canada and Alaska. Once numerous, they were hunted nearly to extinction for their pelts, with dramatic losses in population evident across much of their range by the coming of the 20th Century. Unregulated hunting and habitat destruction continued into the 1970s, a period of high environmental salience which provoked the implementation of numerous guidelines for environmental policy such as the Clean Water and Air Acts. Starting a decade or so before the turn of the century, many states began rehabilitation projects that sought to reintroduce otters to their native range.
When otter reintroduction in Missouri first began, native populations were approaching zero individuals. The first otters to be brought back to Missouri were in 1982, from Louisiana. While Missouri had suffered much wetland degradation over the past century or so, the Ozarks remained sufficiently habitable for otters to potentially make a comeback. Starting there and branching out along Missouri’s over 15,000 miles of waterways, the 2,000 otters released in Missouri as well as neighboring states began interbreeding with local populations and pulling them back from the brink of nonexistence.
Not everyone was happy with otters being back in the state. Missouri is roughly 95% private land, and many homeowners in the Ozarks and beyond stock their own private ponds full of the fish that river otters are known to prey upon, like sunfish and bass. River otters are top predators in their river food chains but usually inhabit larger waterways, so their impact is not great. In small bodies of water like fishing ponds, however, the damage they cause to property and pond ecosystems is enough to enrage homeowners. As a result of the otters’ dramatic repopulation and consequential habitation of private lands, the Missouri Department of Conversation was pressured to issue a regulated otter trapping season in 1996, the first in decades. This policy led to outcry from environmental groups, who saw the return of otter hunting as a blow to environmental efforts and contrary to the initial cause of the otters’ reintroduction.
Although their reintroduction in Missouri has been relatively successful, otter populations nationwide remain in varying states of rehabilitation, with different states experiencing varying degrees of success. Likewise, Missouri’s effort, though initially successful, reflects a general lack of knowledge as to how to manage otter reintroduction in the future, as well as how to regulate their trapping once their populations recover sufficiently. Overall, efforts in Missouri have saved the species locally, and much has been learned about what must be done in the future, but the effort to restore populations are far from finished.
Hamilton, Dave. (2006). From Near Zero to Fifteen Thousand – in 20 Years! Missouri’s River Otter Saga. The River Otter Journal, volume XV. Retrieved from https://bb.wustl.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-1614939-dt-content-rid-3810602_1/courses/FL2014.L61.Focus.2431.01/FL2014.L61.Focus.2431.01_ImportedContent_20140905060514/Hamilton%202006%20Otter%20Reintroduction.pdf?target=blank
Raesly, Elaine J. (2001). Progress and Status of River Otter Reintroduction Projects in the United States. Wildlife Society Bulletin, volume 29. Retrieved from https://bb.wustl.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-1614940-dt-content-rid-3810603_1/courses/FL2014.L61.Focus.2431.01/FL2014.L61.Focus.2431.01_ImportedContent_20140905060514/Raesly%202001%20Otter%20Research.pdf
Pictures courtesy of Dmitry Azovtsev at Wikipedia. Original source is http://www.daphoto.info.