BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota could become the latest state to allow the killing of North American river otters, an animal that was once nearly wiped out in parts of the U.S. by unregulated harvests.
Experts say the otter population is thriving — thanks in part to managed harvests — but animal welfare groups worry the expansion of trapping in the U.S. and Canada in recent decades isn't sustainable. They're fighting in at least one state, Vermont.
Trappers in North Dakota for years have pressed state wildlife officials to allow otter trapping as the animals have moved into the eastern part of the state from Minnesota, where the member of the furred weasel family is more established.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department in July will recommend that Gov. Doug Burgum make the state the 34th to allow trapping. The agency is suggesting a four-month season, with no more than 15 animals killed, said agency furbearer biologist Stephanie Tucker. She said the population has grown enough to justify a limited harvest.
"Anytime you have a new opportunity there for someone to enjoy a new recreational opportunity, it's our responsibility to look at that and offer that ... if the data supports it," Tucker said.
Burgum will "carefully consider" the proposal, spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.
River otters were once abundant throughout North America, but unregulated trapping, water pollution and habitat loss had depleted populations by the early 1900s, according to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The animals rebounded with improvements in water quality, reintroduction programs in many states and regulated harvests.
The number of legally trapped otters has risen from about 11,000 in 1970 to about 20,000 in 2014, according to association data. The International Otter Survival Fund estimates that about 40,000 river otters are actually killed in the U.S. and Canada every year, and the group doesn't believe that amount is sustainable.
Nathan Roberts, an otter expert with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, disputes that.
"We've seen the population rebound a lot over the last several decades, and that growth ... has happened while trapping has taken place," he said. "Otters have really been a success story across the United States. They're found in every one of the 48 lower states and Alaska."
Bryant White, trapping policy program manager for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, said river otter trapping devices are generally considered humane by the scientific community. But wildlife preservation groups don't agree.
"Otter trapping in general often uses underwater traps that cause otters to struggle before drowning," said Christopher Berry, attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "I think that's just incredibly cruel."
The group unsuccessfully fought the launch of otter trapping in Missouri in the 1990s, Berry said. The group has no plans to challenge a North Dakota expansion but is "keeping our eye on the situation," he said.
In Vermont, a group has gathered signatures to protest the state's effort to expand its otter trapping season from four to five months. Protect Our Wildlife Vermont President Brenna Galdenzi said the group hasn't ruled out legal action. Vermont wildlife officials say the change would have minimal effect on a robust otter population.
In North Dakota, Tucker said the only negative feedback she has received has been from two phone calls, despite Game and Wildlife officials discussing otter trapping at meetings around the state in the past year.
"There are a lot of anti-trapping groups out there," she said. "I expected to hear from somebody. I really haven't heard from anybody."
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