Forty years ago, river otters were essentially extinct in West Virginia. Today, they can be found in almost every county of the state.
“In terms of a wildlife success story, I’d rate the reintroduction of river otters as a 10 out of 10,” said Rich Rogers, furbearer project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources.
Otters were once abundant in the Mountain State, but habitat loss and unregulated trapping wiped them out. By the middle of the 20th century they were all but gone.
“Practically speaking, our otter population was zero,” Rogers said. “It was never determined that they were fully extirpated, because one would occasionally show up in the Eastern Panhandle. In the 1980s, we began a reintroduction program.”
DNR officials imported 222 otters from other states and stocked the animals in the Little Kanawha, Elk, South Branch, Cacapon, West Fork, Greenbrier, Meadow, Guyandotte, Cheat, Shavers Fork, New and Dry Fork rivers.
They fared well. By the 1980s, most of the water-quality problems that helped push the otters out had been resolved. Fish populations had started to bounce back from the lows they experienced in the 1950s and 1960s, so the stocked otters found plenty of suckers, carp and other rough fish to prey upon.
As otter numbers began to increase, the mobile and active animals spread throughout every watershed where they’d been introduced.
“Otters are thriving,” Rogers said. “In a little more than 30 years, we have a harvestable surplus of them. That’s pretty darned good.”
By 2011, otter populations had rebounded so well that state wildlife officials reinstituted a conservative trapping season. The bag limit was only one otter per year, but trappers didn’t seem to mind. That first year, they killed 206.
Rogers said the novelty of being able to take a new species spurred many trappers to target otters. Otter pelt prices were high at the time, and that also contributed to the harvest. Since then, the number of otters taken has hovered between 100 and 200 a year.
“The harvest has stayed at a reasonable level, and that’s a good thing,” Rogers added. “We can easily stand to take 200 a year. Right now, with fur prices low, trappers are only taking about 100 a year.”
Throughout the state, people have grown accustomed — perhaps too accustomed — to seeing the charismatic, playful animals along the banks of the state’s waterways. In May, two boaters on Monongalia County’s Dunkard Creek were bitten when an otter climbed into a canoe.
The incident prompted DNR officials to point out that otters, despite their cute appearance, are wild predators and should be given plenty of space.
Rogers said the species’ current abundance has encouraged trappers to push for an increase in the annual bag limit.
“Before we adopt a two-otter limit, though, I need to update the data on survival and reproduction rates,” he explained. “To do that, I need to get otter carcasses from trappers after they skin the animals. Last year, I only got five or six carcasses. That’s not enough to give me the sort of data I need to feel comfortable about raising the limit.”
Rogers said otters are doing well everywhere they exist in the state, but until he’s certain the population can stand a higher harvest rate, the one-animal limit should remain in effect.
“We spent a lot of money and worked really hard to reestablish these creatures,” he said. “We don’t want to make a hasty decision and end up reversing some of the gains we’ve made.”