Keith W. Ruiz was fly fishing around Northerly Island on Wednesday, April 30, when he was treated to an otter swimming in Burnham harbor.
I'll let Ruiz tell it (paragraphs were added for easier reading), then have Bob Bluett, the Illinois wildlife biologist much involved with the reintroduction of otters into Illinois, gave some explanations.
``Hi Dale! My story begins yesterday morning (April 30th to be exact) as I went out to Burnham Harbor looking for bass of both varieties.
``I am a fly fisherman & had been doing quite well along the west wall since last week with several fish in the 3-4 lb. range on self tied minnow imitations, but the southeast winds made casting & sightfishing that I depend on difficult at best.
``So I headed over to the 'Island', & as I was approaching the old terminal building, I could not believe my eyes. About 50 ft. or so right off the northwest point of the little land protrusion right in front of the building, there was an OTTER!
``And a quite healthy looking specimen it was. As I got a bit closer, it took a dive, not noticing me yet, & came back up 10 or so seconds later & about 5 feet closer.
``At first, due to its impressive size, I thought it was a beaver, as we actually have one taking up residence in 'Bubbly Creek' (of all places) a block from my house.
``But on closer inspection, I got a good glimpse of its pointy tail & longer, thinner body. Also its characteristic 'backstroke' & seemingly carefree attitude sold me. (Beavers always seem like they're on an important mission).
``At this point, it occurred to me to pull out my camera that every true fisherman should carry, but before I could my antique digital to boot up, he spotted me from his prone position, stared me right in the eye for a moment, & slipped beneath the surface, & I never saw him again.
``What a moment!
``I have been fishing Burnham for about 15 years, & never seen one before. My question to you is, is this a truly rare instance, or just a first for me?
``Thank-you in advance for any response you might be able to give me.
``Keith W. Ruiz , Bridgeport, U.S.A., & of course, SOX FAN!''
First off, Bluett said he was ``not surprised. They have been observed around Chicago and the suburbs for several years.'' Sightings of otters around Chicago will become more common.
I asked Bluett if he thought they could establish on Lake Michigan. At first, he wasn't so sure, then said, ``On second thought, they could make it part of their territory. Big reservoirs have them.''
He said the keys are a good fish supply and some cover (Burnham, Diversey, Jackson Park harbors all have that).
The reintroduction of otters into Illinois has been unbelievably successful. Bluett said the current population estimate is more than 10,000 otters in Illinois, and that they are in all 102 counties.
Otters were reintroduced in Illinois in 1994 along the Kaskaskia, Wabash and Illinois river basins. It was so successful that by 2002, otters were reported in 91 of 102 Illinois counties, and by 2004, they were delisted.
A scientific study on Illinois' reintroduction of otters is here.
A more generally accessible news release on the delisting of otters as an ``state threatened species'' in 2004 is here and pasted below.
``Welcome Back, Otters!
ILLINOIS RIVER OTTERS THRIVE; REMOVED FROM LIST OF STATE THREATENED SPECIES
Illinois river otters passed a huge milestone in statewide recovery efforts in September 2004, when Illinois Department of Natural Resources officially removed them from its list of “state threatened species.”
“State threatened” indicates that otters were a troubled wildlife population in Illinois; otters abound in certain states.
“Today, Illinois river otters thrive as populations jumped from an all-time low of 100 in the 1970s to more than 4,600 today,” says Bob Bluett, wildlife diversity biologist at Illinois DNR. “More notably, otters now reside in the Chicago area -- an idea that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.”
Illinois’ river otter recovery plan recommends delisting the species when biologists could document populations as widespread and secure. Illinois DNR will continue monitoring river otters to ensure their abundance.
“River otters have special protection in Illinois,” Bluett says. “They are considered nongame, meaning harvesting by hunting and trapping is not allowed.” He notes, however, that as populations continue to multiply, harvesting might be necessary to maintain healthy balances between otters and people.
River otters join a list of other species that have rebounded in Illinois history, including beavers and white-tailed deer. At the turn of the 20th century, before Illinois DNR was founded, beavers and deer were almost gone from Illinois. Due to extensive recovery efforts, today’s beaver and white-tailed deer populations are at all-time highs, and statewide harvests help manage populations.
The long and winding road: Illinois otter recovery
Illinois otters were almost ghosts by the late 1970s when fewer than 100 were estimated statewide. They then were listed as “state endangered,” the most negative indicator of a species’ condition in Illinois.
The animals experienced years of over-harvesting before the last otter season closed in 1929, but they also suffered from drastic habitat losses. Draining wetlands, converting land for farming, and channelizing streams and rivers played a role in otters’ decline throughout the Midwest. Water pollution was a major problem in some areas until standards and regulations helped clean up waterways in the past 30 years.
Illinois DNR embarked on the otters’ successful recovery in 1994, when biologists began releasing otters captured in Louisiana, where they are plentiful, to develop strong populations along the Kaskaskia, Wabash and Illinois river basins.
The dramatic otter reintroduction led to robust population growth in the new millennium:
• Between 1994 and 2002, otters were reported in 91 of 102 Illinois counties.
• In 1999, river otters were upgraded from “state endangered” to the less serious status of “state threatened” when their numbers improved considerably.
• In 2001, more than 1,800 otters lived in the original reintroduction areas.
• In 2004, numbers in original reintroduction areas top 4,600.
Higher and heartier than expected
Statewide otter numbers are much higher than 4,600, which indicate growth only in reintroduction areas. Illinois also benefited when otters reintroduced by wildlife agencies in Missouri and Iowa spread to nearby parts of Illinois. Additional numbers grew due to Illinois DNR’s care of existing populations.
Illinois biologists were amazed not only by otters’ swift recovery, but their ability to thrive in today’s landscape.
“We used to think that otters couldn’t survive in developed areas, but we learned that otters are hearty,” says Bluett. “Biologists found otters in the Chicago area. It takes a lot of flexibility to survive in one of the nation’s most urban settings.”
Biologists have sighted otters along North Creek near Glenwood; Poplar Creek near Elgin; Fox River near Aurora, and on Indian Creek near Vernon Hills.
Contributions by trappers and others
Otters’ successful reintroduction shows that techniques and equipment used by responsible trappers are safe, effective and as humane as possible. Trappers captured river otters in Louisiana using foothold traps as part of the Illinois otter reintroduction effort; these animals were released safely.
“Trappers have proven themselves as true allies of conservation and caretakers of wildlife,” Bluett says.
He notes that trapping technology, education and standards have evolved during the last 75 years. “Traps with teeth are collector’s items,” Bluett says. “In Illinois legal devises have smooth jaws or padding and are sized to catch specific kinds of animals.”
In addition, trappers 18 and younger must pass an Illinois trapper safety and education course to buy a license. More than 140 trappers volunteer their time and energy to teach these courses each year.
“It has taken collaboration among state and federal agencies, trappers and other conservationists to bring otters back to Illinois,” says Bluett. “We’re thrilled to say that otters are here for good.”
Visit the Fur Hunting and Trapping in Illinois website
Learn more by visiting the Illinois DNR’s new website, “Fur Hunting and Trapping in Illinois,” at dnr.state.il.us/orc/wildlife, or contact the Illinois DNR at 217-782-6384.