Green Guide

River otters return to Spring Mill State Park

Posted January 6

— When wildlife naturalist Wyatt Williams first was told there were otters at Spring Mill State Park, he didn't believe it.

"When I was in the process of applying for this position, I came for an on-site visit about a year ago, and the property manager, Mark Young, proudly proclaimed there were otters here," Williams said. "Otters are, in my mind at the time ... kind of mythical. It's like you'll always meet people that say they have a mountain lion in the woods, but statistically, they don't."

Since a year ago, Williams has seen five otters at the restored lake at Spring Mill in Mitchell.

"It's just amazing. It's really exciting," he said.

It's amazing because a little more than 20 years ago, there weren't any river otters in Indiana.

"They were here historically, and the reason they're gone is because of over-trapping to sort of feed the European market," Williams said. "They have waterproof fur, so they were being used to make waterproof gloves and hats."

A study conducted sometime around 1942 determined Indiana's population of otters had been wiped out, he said.

Then, in 1995, the Department of Natural Resources launched a reintroduction program to bring otters back to Indiana, and the first 25 otters in Indiana were transported from Louisiana to Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, according to www.in.gov/dnr. In total, 303 river otters were released in Indiana between 1995 and 1999.

In 2005, river otters were removed from Indiana's endangered species list. Now, river otters have been seen in 87 percent of Indiana counties, the website states.

"The more species you have, the more biodiversity you have, and the more biodiversity you have, the healthier your park is," Williams said. "In addition, Spring Mill is always trying to manage for what we call pre-settlement conditions, like what it was like before the Europeans came over and settled here, and otters were here then. So we want them here again."

Another reason the park wants to have otters, Williams said, is because it attracts more people to the park and creates good wildlife viewing for visitors.

"I took a video, not a big one, maybe about 30 seconds long, and I posted it to Facebook," Williams said. "Thirty-two thousand people have watched it, and a bunch of people have shared it."

He said it's fairly common to see the otters out and about at Spring Mill, but they're most active around dawn and dusk.

"Some people see them more often than others. Everyone who works here has definitely seen them," Williams said. "I can't guarantee that if you come out to Spring Mill that you'll see them, but they're common."

Williams added, however, that not everyone is happy that otters have returned.

"Once they're here, they don't take a lot of work to keep around. They actually border on becoming a nuisance. It's the same as beavers, and that's why we have opened a trapping season on them.

"Otters have a reputation for eating a lot of fish, so they often eat all the fish we just bought and stocked in the lake."

Williams has also heard from people who visit the park to fish that they're unhappy that otters are returning.

"It's never black and white. It is a gray area, and it needs to be explored," he said. "It's tricky. We will manage them as best as we know how to, but we're happy they're here."

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Source: The (Bloomington) Herald-Times, http://bit.ly/2hTD0To

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