DANVILLE — As a sixth grader in 1997, Josh Gabehart opened one of the pens that held 15 river otters being released at Kennekuk County Park in an effort to reintroduce the animal to Illinois waterways.
Now in his late 20s, Gabehart said the then-endangered river otters seemed a little scared by the nearly 1,000 people who gathered that day at Lake Mingo in Vermilion County to watch them slip into the water.
"I remember it was a big deal," Gabehart said.
Since then, Illinois' largest member of the weasel family has made one of the biggest comebacks in the state's endangered species history. Their ranks have gone from only 100 in pockets of extreme southern and western Illinois in the late 1970s to 15,000-plus statewide today, according to Bob Bluett, a wildlife biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"They've done better, perhaps, than anyone expected," said Bluett, who was involved in the state's river otter reintroduction program in the early 1990s.
Decades of unregulated trapping in the 1800s along with habitat destruction rendered river otters virtually nonexistent in Illinois. The state listed them as threatened in 1977 and endangered in 1989. Joining other Midwestern states, like Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa and eventually Indiana, Illinois began purchasing river otters from Louisiana — where they still thrived — from a trapper who found a way to capture them without injury.
Illinois concentrated its releases in central Illinois watersheds, including the Illinois, Kaskaskia and Wabash river basins, releasing about 346 otters between 1994 and 1997, including two releases totaling 30 otters at Lake Mingo. With otters in the border states spreading toward Illinois, Bluett said, Illinois' goal was to fill the hole in the donut.
Pop went the weasel, and by 1999, otters were taken off the state's endangered list.
The success of the North American river otter's return here is rivaled only by the wild turkey, Bluett said.
"Things on that scale don't happen very often, so it's kind of cool," he said.
Some pond owners may not think so.
What's that smell?
Early on in the recovery, Bluett remembers getting calls from people excited to see them in their ponds. Five years later, the calls were from people upset about piles of catfish heads around their ponds.
Bluett said otters can put a dent in a pond's fish population and wipe out the catfish, because they reproduce in rivers and streams but not ponds. Bluett also began hearing from owners of fish farms, mostly in southern Illinois.
Rick Tweedy of Newman owns Predator Nuisance Wildlife Control and has been a trapper his whole life. He said he gets many calls from pond owners in Vermilion County, dealing with otters that are eating a lot of fish.
Bluett said the goal is to achieve a good balance — a healthy river otter population but not to the point where they become varmints.
So, at the request of the state's natural resources department, the state Legislature allowed last year, for the first time, a highly regulated river otter trapping season from November to March. Each trapper is limited to five per season.
Tweedy and his son almost caught both of their limits that season from one private pond near Fairmount in Vermilion County. Over several weeks, they pulled six river otters from that pond, Tweedy said. About 2,000 otters were harvested throughout the state, Bluett said.
Bluett said otters are "pretty much opportunists," taking whatever fish they can get, but may not spend their efforts on minnows, instead opting for sunfish on up to carp and catfish. He said especially during the winter, catfish are lethargic and bunch up, making them easier prey for the otters.
At Lake Shelbyville, one of the release sites in the early '90s, river otters are mostly celebrated and have plenty of fish to go around. But they have been a bit of a nuisance for a different reason, according to Lee Mitchell, a natural resource specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers. He said people like seeing the furry, playful animals that run up the banks and slide back down. Typically, he said, you see multiple otters together, even chasing each other.
"Just like on National Geographic specials," he said.
But in the lake's marinas, the otters have made a habit of weaseling into the voids in older styrofoam docks to feast on fish and relieve themselves, causing a mess and foul odors.
"The animals are not bothering anyone. It's just the mess they were leaving," said Mitchell, who explained that they're encouraging the replacement of the older-style docks and that's helped. Mitchell said they've also had trappers catch some of the more problem ones.
"They are a neat animal, and bigger than you think. I've held up some big males hit on the road that are five feet long with their tail. They're a real thin and long animal. They can get down holes. They can get about anywhere. They swim really well, too."
Where'd all my fish go?
Steve Beckman, owner of Anything Wild in Urbana, said no doubt there are a lot of otters around here — big, healthy ones. It's not uncommon for him to catch one accidently while trapping for something else. At Windsor Road and First Street there's a beaver dam, he said, and he knows there's an otter, too, because he's seen the pile of fish scales. Bluett and Beckman said otters tend to be around beaver, even taking over an abandoned beaver den, because dammed-up water attracts fish.
Beckman said he gets some calls from people dealing with otters eating up their fish in lakes or ponds, but they don't always have the urgency to spend money to have them removed, because the animals aren't doing real property damage like other varmints. So he tries to advise them on how to deal with the otters.
"It's a good animal, and they are fun to see," said Beckman, who cautioned that they can also be aggressive if cornered. "They chatter at you and try to bite you. They're really fast and can turn on a dime. If you could get one in a Coke bottle, they could turn around and come out."
Tweedy said he sells the otter pelts along with his other furs to the North American Fur auction house in Canada. He and Beckman said the prices for pelts — like otters, mink and muskrat — have gone up, because of growing demand in Russia and especially China, where a growing middle class can't get enough.
Gabehart, who's a hunter and outdoorsman now, said he has seen otters in the wild, and finds it neat to know he was part of their recovery. He remembers his dad, before that day at Lake Mingo, explaining to him how animals disappear if they're allowed to be over-hunted or over-trapped.
"It's neat to see the natural population come back," he said. "That's the whole point. You want to be back to the native Illinois."