River otters once again are making Indiana a permanent residence.
After missing from the state for almost a century, they were reintroduced beginning 15 years ago at a handful of locations by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. These slithery semi-aquatic mammals strongly have re-established themselves.
"We started by releasing 25 otters at the Muscatuck National Wildlife Refuge (near Seymour) early in 1995," said Scott Johnson, a Nongame Mammalogist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. "A total of 303 were released at a variety of watershed areas around Indiana over a five-year period."
The otters used in the Indiana reintroduction were wild and caught in Louisiana by cooperative trappers. Since the reintroduction began, river otters now are found in more than 70 counties, including Lake and Porter.
"This has been a tremendous success," Johnson said. "We kind of expected it though. Other states had already completed reintroduction programs, and we followed their strategies. We didn't want to reinvent the wheel with otters.
"Indiana has very suitable habitats for them to thrive. Rivers flanked by wetlands provide diverse food resources."
River otters officially were considered extinct in Indiana in 1942, but they probably were wiped out decades earlier.
"Unregulated trapping and hunting was the main reason otters disappeared," Johnson said. "Back then there was no Department of Natural Resources. There were no limits, regulations or laws. It was a trapping and hunting free-for-all. This combined with a loss of habitat to farmland and subdivisions led to the otter's demise in Indiana. They succumbed to the pressure.
"However, otters were never really in jeopardy of disappearing throughout the country. They were always strong in the South, upper Midwest and in New England. Otters were just hit hard in the agricultural Midwest."
The reintroduction program has moved river otters from the state's endangered list to the protected species list as their numbers continue to grow.
The closest that otters were released to Northwest Indiana was at Tippecanoe River State Park near Winamac. One way or another, they have made it to the area.
"Otters have been confirmed on the Kankakee River along Lake and Porter counties," Johnson said. "They probably got into the Kankakee from the Tippecanoe release as well as from Illinois. Neighboring states benefit from each other's release programs."
* The river otter is 3-4 feet long and weighs 15-25 pounds.
* Its long tail is thicker close to its body and slims down to a point, making up one-third of the total body length. Rich, brown fur covers most of the animal.
* A tan underside is topped off with silver-gray fur on the throat. The long whiskers are used for finding underwater food.
* River otters feed on smaller, slower-moving animals that live in the water. Much of their diet consists of medium-sized fish, but they also enjoy crayfish and frogs.
* River otters make their homes around marshes, sloughs, ponds, lakes and streams. For protection, they tend to use natural structures such as logjams, overhanging rocks and abandoned shelters built by other animals.
Source: Indiana Department of Natural Resources