December 13, 2013
By Emily Bastaroli, Point Park News Service
The river otter will likely become a legal target for Pennsylvania trappers in coming years, under a draft management plan the Pennsylvania Game Commission will finalize in January. This comes after river otters were nearly wiped out. Populations were restored in the state between 1982 and 2004.
Not everyone’s in favor of the plan.
“Otters have allowed us to focus on the importance of high quality aquatic systems,” said Thomas Serfass, who led the otter reintroduction efforts. Serfass is a professor in the department of biology and natural resources at Frostburg State University. “The otter is a symbol for protecting aquatic environments.”
Serfass said that when Pennsylvania voters approved putting the otter on state license plates, it was very gratifying for him. He also explained that many local outdoor organizations across that state are using the otter as a symbol to promote water quality. As in this photo, river otters being released along the Juniata River in south-central Pennsylvania in 2002 became a community affair. (Tom Serfass is in the center. Photo by Rob Criswell.)
“Otters are becoming a flagship,” Serfass said.
But according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s spokesman Travis Lau, the purpose of the Otter Management Plan is to make sure the species maintains a stable population. The plan would also develop guidelines to assess the feasibility of trapping the animal.
“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.”
This video shows otters sliding in the snow along the Yougiogheny River at Ohiopyle State Park in February, 2003. It was part of a remote video camera study that was being conducted by Sadie Stevens, graduate student at Frostburg State University and funded by the PA Wild Resource Conservation Fund and a State Wildlife Grant from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, administered by the PA Game Commission.
Read about the video: Sliding Behavior of Nearctic River Otters, Locomotion or Play?
While the exact number of the otter population in Pennsylvania has yet to be determined, the Game Commission keeps track of any otter road kills and requires that trappers report when an otter is inadvertently trapped.
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 Game Commission 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% durability).”
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.
“In Pennsylvania, we consider all wildlife a shared resource,” Lau said. “[Harvesting] allows an individual to take their share of the resource.”
Henry Kacprzyk, the curator of Kids Kingdom and Reptiles at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, 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.”
Lau said if harvesting were to happen, he said, it would be very limited.
“Biologists are confident of opening a trapping season [in the future]. It would not hurt the population,” Lau said.
The Commission collected comments to the Otter Management Plan and the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners will discuss the plan and finalize it at a public meeting in January.