The early morning mist swirled and drifted over the surface of Round Spring, one of the jewels of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The sound of splashing attracted my attention. There in the crystal blue spring outlet were four river otters. They were wrestling with each other, doing barrel-rolls, sliding into the water like they were made of the stuff and triumphantly leaping back out. While a scientist may have described all this as instinctive behavior, to me it certainly looked like playing. Of all the creatures in the world otters seem to have the most fun, and these guys were having a blast!
Of all the animals in the Ozarks, few can deny that the river otter has the most charisma. As I enjoyed the show I couldnt help but wonder how an animal so adorable could become so controver- sial and even hated by some.
Otters are the only truly aquatic members of the weasel family that also includes minks, martens, fishers and wolverines. They possess the intelligence, energy and appetites for which their family is famous - or infamous.
Otters are predatory, usually being the top predator in their aquatic world. Their sleek fur and aerodynamic shape cut down water resistance, while their webbed feet and powerful tail propel them through the water at speeds up to six miles an hour. They are opportunistic feeders, eating crayfish mostly, because they are easy prey, but are certainly not above a nice meal of fish. This of course, is what gets them in trouble.
Native to the Ozarks, otters have shared our cool clean rivers with fish and other aquatic life since the earliest times. The Osage Indians valued otter skins for decoration and the first White explorers to the area were trappers seeking beaver and other furs, including otter.
Unfortunately, at least in most of Missouri, the spread of settlement and reduction of quality habitat reduced otter numbers to next to nothing. Small populations hung on in the St Francois Mountains and in the swampy bootheel. In Missouri until the 1980s, otters were considered rare.
In 1982, the Missouri Department of Conservation began a plan to once again make otters a functioning part of Missouri stream ecosystems. MDC has a fine record of successfully helping wildlife species recover. The agency can rightfully take credit for the abundance of deer and turkey, and points with pride to its fine work in helping populations of ospreys, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons recover in the state. When MDC announced a plan to do the same for otters, it was met with widespread approval.
Between 1982 and 1992, MDC released 845 Louisiana otters in Missouri. Since then, the otters have adapted well. They have enthusiastically done what comes naturally and the population has boomed to as many as 10,600 otters, according to MDC figures. No one can argue that the program wasnt a success in at least one respect: otters are definitely re-established in Missouri. What is argued is whether or not this is a good thing.
Otters most vocal opponents are fishermen who blame otters for a perceived decline in fish on some rivers in the Ozarks. Otters are, like many predators, eager to seize favorable opportunities. They can do terrible things to a stocked fish pond. As outdoor writer and former MDC official Joel Vance put it , "let an otter discover a well stocked pond and its like turning a kid loose in a candy store." If the fish cant get away because they are trapped in a small area with little cover, they are going to get eaten, no two ways about it.
Fish ponds however, are artificial environments and can be protected by fencing. Pond owners do have the right, in Missouri at least, to shoot or trap offending otters. This situation is a lot like the fox in the henhouse, but it doesnt have much relevance to the argument that otters are reducing fish populations in free flowing Ozark streams. In the rivers, the fish have a fighting chance, places to hide and lots of room to run away. According to MDC spokesman Jim Lowe, "there is no evidence that river otters are hurting fish populations in major Ozark streams." In fact, the sporting value of game fish is largely due to aeons of development in response to predators. As avid trout fisherman Stephen Barnard says in defense of otters, "if there were no predators, trout would be huge, stupid, lurking beasts with no sporting value whatsoever."
To help bring the otter population to a more manageable level, the state of Missouri has instituted an otter trapping season, with about $88,000 worth of pelts being harvested, most of which are exported to Asia. MDC is studying the situation, analyzing trapped otter stomachs and otter scats to see what percentage of their food is game fish.
There are many other factors besides otters that could cause the decline in fishing in some areas. We know that pollution, streambed gravel mining, agricultural runoff and other negative impacts are occurring in Ozarks streams. As top predators, otters will eventually be affected by any environmental decline in their streams, just like the fish. The otters may not be the culprits, they may well be fellow victims of our short-sightedness and failure to care for the natural treasures of our Ozark streams.
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