Missouri River Otter Saga

Going from zero to 60 in less than 5 seconds is fast. So is going from 50 to more than 15,000 in about 20 years. Maybe it’s too fast.

We may have broken the speed limit in Missouri with our river otter restoration program. In 1980, we estimated that only 35 to 70 otters survived in the few remnant swamps and wetlands in Missouri’s Bootheel region. Their numbers had not changed in more than 50 years. Since we began stocking the animals, their population has peaked at more than 15,000.

Bring ’em back to Missouri

The first batch came from Louisiana in 1982. We fitted them with radio-implants, so we could track them, and set them loose in some of Missouri’s finest wetlands in and around Chariton County in north-central Missouri. Knowing the quality of the wetlands, we weren’t completely surprised when, in a few short generations, they made hundreds of new otters that spread out into the adjacent duck clubs and borrow ditches.

Missouri has few such wetlands, so the real test was to see if otters could once again exist in other habitats. We wanted to establish otter populations along Missouri’s rivers and streams.

Or, so we thought.

During an 11-year program, we released 845 otters, setting them free in 43 streams in 35 counties. We traded some of our wild turkeys for wild-caught Cajun otters—the same subspecies that once existed here.

The rest, as they say, is history. The otters not only survived, they flourished. Otters now exist in every county in the state and in most watersheds, even those miles from the original release sites. And, they made their way into places we never would have believed they could, and where they were really not wanted.

Otter Disaster

Fishing is important to Missourians. The state’s numerous farm ponds, most of which contain a combination of largemouth bass, bluegill and channel catfish, provide lots of recreational angling for kids and adults.

In our vision for otters living in Missouri, we sure didn’t see these ponds as providing good habitat for otters, nor did we see the impending train wreck that otter depredation of the fish in these ponds would cause.

There is no predator of fish more efficient than river otters. Traveling in groups of two to eight animals, they can hammer fish in a small pond before anyone even knows they are there. Sometimes they travel four or more miles from streams to hit these fast-food opportunities.

Otters eat