Trap and Free Otters – In The Press

Project Under Way to Trap and Free Otters
New York Times Article
February 8, 1998
By Anne C. Fullam

A SPECIAL season is under way to trap river otters in the eastern portion of New York State and release the animals at nine locations in the central and western sections of the state.

Sponsored by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York River Otter Project is required to receive most of its financing from private sources. An estimated $300,000 will be needed to complete the project, which aims to restore the otters to their previous habitats.

”They’re playful and people enjoy seeing them,” said Scott Smith, a state biologist at New Paltz and director of the otter project. A mud slide down a riverbank is a perfect otter playground.

”They were there originally up until the 1800’s, when the land was cleared for farms,” Mr. Smith said. ”Then there was chemical pollution, pesticides like arsenic. Otters are very sensitive to contaminants.”

About 300 otters are expected to be trapped and released in the next 10 years.

With otter habitats recovering as farms revert to woodlands, contaminants declining and water quality improving, specialists expect Lutra canadensis to thrive.

”We believe they have reproduced already from the first release,” Mr. Smith said. An experimental season was conducted from 1995 to 1996 when 21 otters — 12 males and 9 females — were released.

”We saw tracks in the snow,” Mr. Smith said. ”We had a couple of sightings of large ones and little ones.”

Protected since 1936, when the state first banned otter trapping, otters have begun a slow return. A nine-year ban gave otters a chance to reproduce. Since the 1960’s, their population has doubled.

Once hunted almost into total decline for their pelts, otters are now trapped during a regular season, with catch limits and tagging procedures.

Besides in Westchester, river otters can be found in Putnam, Dutchess and Suffolk Counties. They are common east of the Unadilla River and north of the Mohawk River as well as in areas east of the Delaware watershed and north to Canada.

The special season for the river otter project in lower New York ran six weeks and has ended.

Jim Dreisacker of Brewster is a licensed trapper who took special courses at the Newcomb Research Station in Huntington to be part of the otter project. About 125 trappers took part.

On a recent morning, Mr. Dreisacker checked his traps along June Road in North Salem. No otters were there.

Using mink lure, an scent impregnated in a large cotton wad placed in a string bag at the back of each steel cage, Mr. Dreisacker sets the traps along rivers, streams and ponds in northern Westchester, going as far south as the Saw Mill River.

”They don’t reproduce as fast as muskrats,” Mr. Dreisacker said. ”Otters are one litter a year of two to four pups.” Muskrats can have four litters a year.

A member of the weasel family, river otters grow 3 to 4 feet long, including a 12- to 18-inch tail. Otters can weigh up to 25 pounds, and the average weight is 12 pounds. Glossy black to light brown, otters are the only members of the weasel family with webbed feet and a heavily muscled tail. Bottom feeders, otters eat crayfish, clams, snakes, frogs, tadpoles, salamanders and water insects. They also eat fish that swim slowly. When food is scarce, otters will prey on muskrats, ducks, berries and corn.

Otters breed in February. The young are born after 60 days. Pairs mate for life, and families stay together for at least a year, when the young leave the den. Otters nest in hollow logs or riverbank caves. Sometimes they will use beaver lodges.

The otter release sites include Howland Island Wildlife Management Area and Bear Swamp in Cayuga County, Whitney Point Multiple Use Area in Broome County, Mud Creek in Schuyler County, Tonawanda, a wildlife area in Genesee County; Canisteo River in Steuben County, Alder Bottom Swamp in Chautauqua County, Little Conewango Creek in Cattaraugus County and Genesee River in Livingston County.

The New York River Otter Project is a nonprofit organization founded by the Rochester Gas and Electric Company, Nixon Hargrave Devans and Doyle, the Genesee Valley Trappers, the Helmer Nature Center, theSeneca Zoo Society, the New York State Trappers Association, the Genesee Valley Audubon Society and the Hawk Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine cares for the otters during a quarantine period before they are released.

Money for the project is being raised through the sale of T-shirts, sweatshirts, bumper stickers, canvas totes, key rings, logo patches and otter photographs.

The merchandise is available through the Department of Environmental Conservation at (716) 771-2113.

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