Returning River Otters to Former Habitat Thank you Mr. Sevin, Sir
By: Tom Krause Date: 01/12/2012 Category: | Wildlife Journal |
The coastal marshes of southern Louisiana have been blessed since creation with fertile sediment that has been carried by the Mississippi and other large rivers on a slow, southerly path into the Gulf of Mexico. These immense delta wetlands changed over eons as suspended soil settled, resettled, and finally rested to enrich a small plant or a large one. Numerous river channels in the great southern delta were diverted again and again creating ever-increasing land masses and vegetated marshes interspersed with myriads of channels, potholes, and shallow lakes.
Vegetation changes in a coastal marsh as fresh water turns brackish, then salty. Huge, Spanish moss-covered live oaks establish and age upon earth that is now mostly dry. Cypress trees thrive in fresh water with their curious “knees” protruding here and there. They too are frequently draped with Spanish moss that seemingly acts a little ghostlike after dark with a gentle breeze. At last as the presence of salt water is felt, plant growth is limited to salt tolerant marsh grasses and shrubs.
Since time immemorial, these fertile wetlands have filled an important ecological niche for many species. Some 15 million water birds, five million wintering waterfowl, more than a million alligators, and 11 threatened and endangered species now depend upon this wetland complex. Nearly every commercially important fishery in the Gulf of Mexico is linked to this fertile environment including shrimp, crabs, oysters and many species of fish as the flowing fresh water turns brackish, then salty upon entering the Gulf.
Settlement of this region occurred shortly after the son of a French trapper, named Iberville, was commissioned by his motherland to explore the Gulf Coast for furbearers. Impressed with the abundance of otters, Iberville named some waterways such as Pass-a-Loutre and Bayou Loutre after the river otter, Lutra Canadensis. This abundant land was soon settled by French speaking Canadians migrating from Canada’s east coast in the 1700s and early 1800s. These people fared well in this abundant land. Now known as Cajuns, these enterprising people kept French as their first language.
One contribution of the Cajun community is recipes for foods. Jambalaya, blackened redfish, gumbo, and many other well-seasoned dishes originated in southern Louisiana to be appreciated first by visitors. The chefs of the world soon took note.
Vast areas of these wetlands were sold by the state of Louisiana to individuals and land companies in the early 1900s. The thought was if the lands were made private, taxes could be assessed. Much of this property sold for as little as 25 to 50 cents an acre. Not a bad deal, really, when you realize gas and oil were soon to be discovered under the surface of the mud and water. The land companies began to dredge canals through the marshlands, opening easy access from the settled towns on land to the gulf. In some situations, canals were actually dug by hand with shovels. Getting equipment into and drilling in a wetland was pretty much discovered in this section of the world. It was a large first step before offshore drilling from floating platforms was even envisioned.
Many land companies began to lease sections of the marshes to individuals with exclusive rights to hunt, harvest alligators, and trap abundant muskrats and other furbearers. These leases allowed the hunters and trappers opportunity to build camps in the bayou. Virtually all were built on pilings with floors six feet or so above the high water stages to prevent water destruction during hurricanes. Sewage systems had to be confined to prevent pollution, and many enterprising camp builders designed ingenious rainwater collection systems from roofs to tanks to provide for their camp needs.
Hurricanes and the tornadoes they spawn infrequently raise havoc in the Louisiana delta. Hurricane Audrey, June 27, 1956, was the most destructive of all in terms of human life. Winds were reported of up to 150 miles per hour and a storm surge of 12.4 feet was reported west of the town of Cameron, some 20 feet above mean sea level. From 90-95 percent of the buildings in Cameron and Lower Vermillion Parishes were damaged beyond repair as 526 people lost their lives. Many drowned. It is believed at least as many died from water moccasin bites when they climbed trees where these poisonous snakes also sought refuge.
A most curious aspect of this storm was the exodus of wildlife preceding it. On the evening before landfall, thousands of crawfish were seen fleeing the marshes around Cameron. Some enterprising locals collected them for their freezers, unaware of the significance of the event. Needless to say, they were never brought to boil the following day as Audrey took her toll.
A typical trapping lease in these wetlands was and is about two or three square miles, depending mostly upon the quality of the habitat. Annual costs to the trappers for these trapping leases averaged $1200 during years of relatively high fur prices. Hard-working trappers made large catches and great money some years.
A unique policing method occurred whenever a hunter or trapper determined to sell his camp. The sale had to be approved by the land company. It was common for the land managers to discreetly inquire around the neighborhood to discover if the potential buyer was honorable. If that person was known to cause mischief or not obey the rules and game laws, the sale was simply not approved.
Perhaps little noticed at the time, Lee Roy Sevin was born into this world in 1928 as a son to a Cajun trapper who could trace the family lineage in Terrebonne (Good Earth) Parish to the late 1700s and early 1800s. An energetic lad, Lee Roy took to the bayou naturally. Not excessively bothered by too much schooling, the youngster learned the ways of the land.
At age nine, during the 1937-38 trapping season, Lee Roy trapped a lease for muskrats with his aunt Millie. Working mostly from a pirogue, Sevin said, “There were many places you could go a long ways in the marsh just hopping from ‘rat house’ to ‘rat house.’”
The money was good too as a typical pelt fetched the price of a quarter.
Invasion of the nutria
About the time Lee Roy Sevin began his trapping career, something happened that would have a profound and mostly negative impact upon these southern coastal wetlands. Nutria (Myocastor Coypus, a South American rodent), escaped or were released into the wild from pens. These furbearers thrived immediately and expanded seemingly everywhere. Exceedingly prolific and with voracious appetites, the nutria out-competed native muskrats for food. Soon large eat-outs began to appear in the landscape with disastrous impacts. Fertile marshlands were often reduced to mud flats. Grasses that had served as buffers from incoming saltwater were removed by the rodents, allowing killing of more and more salt intolerant vegetations. Many species of wildlife other than muskrats were significantly and negatively affected by the nutria invasion, including wading birds, waterfowl, fisheries, and even shrimp production for the gulf.
By the late 1950s, strong fur markets had developed for nutrias. With markets of up to $10 a pelt and catches of 40-60 animals daily, the marshes were alive with trappers making money that would be good even today.
Foothold traps have always been the trap of choice for nutria and muskrat harvesting in these shallow water marshes. Places to use body-gripping traps are rare and rarely used even today in the bayou. Most successful trappers never used baits to attract either muskrats or nutrias where everything was edible, and lures were simply not needed as set constructions are simple blind sets where a nutria or muskrat determines to land to feed, preen, or cross over to another pond. In such places most trap sets are simply a longspring trap placed where the furbearer will likely step. Staking most often is just a stout cane pushed through the trap chain ring.
When nutria trapping began in earnest with number two and number 11 longspring traps during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the harvests of otters picked up considerably, primarily because nutria traps are more apt to hold otters than a less powerful muskrat trap; and otters habitually use the same landings and crossovers as nutrias making both vulnerable to trap sets at the same locations. Harvests of Louisiana river otters were phenomenal during the late 1970s, even exceeding 11,000. Because of the nutria trapping effort at that time, it seems safe to realize most were taken as welcome incidental catches in traps placed with a nutria in mind.
During the 1950s, Lee Roy took a job with the Laterre Land Company as a field superintendent. His responsibilities varied. He was charged with many aspects of land management in the marshlands he knows so well. Speaking fluent French was a real asset in the land of the Cajuns, and most fun was working with the trappers, duck hunters and alligator harvesters with their leases. Least fun, admitted Lee Roy with a sly grin, was dealing with “the Wal-Mart geologists” on oil lease matters.
A not so small thing happened during a leisurely moment in 1957 as Lee Roy Sevin perused the classified ad section in the back of a Fur Fish Game magazine. He noticed an ad by Tom White, a Montana trapper, offering live beavers. He immediately thought, “if he can sell beavers, I can sell otters.” He never liked to kill an otter anyway.
While catching a few otters for a man wise in the ways of nature is easy enough, Sevin soon learned keeping wild caught otters alive and acclimating them to man is not. And so began trial and error lessons for a man who would not accept failure.
The river otter business
The first live otter sales occurred that year with a shipment of a pair to a game farm in Berwick, Maine. Another pair was then purchased by the St. Louis zoo. Little did Lee Roy realize from the humble beginning of the Bayou Otter Farm just how busy his life would be for the next 41 years.
Sevin said that the first obstacle to keeping a wild-caught otter alive is getting it to eat. With a high metabolic rate, otters have to eat significant amounts of food regularly. Lee Roy soon learned the trapped otters refused the offered food no matter how tempting, and they starved to death. Now recognized as perhaps the world’s leading authority on acclimating otters, Lee Roy Sevin is surely correct when he says, “Otters hold a grudge against the trapper. Since he is the reason for their predicament, they will prefer to starve rather than take a handout from him.”
This was a huge discovery and helped explain the previous lack of success by others. Lee Roy’s wife Diane was soon diverted from her household chores to feed Lee Roy’s catches, with great success. Both Sevins have spent many an hour sitting by a freshly penned otter, talking to it soothingly until it was comforted enough to begin eating.
Food was another hurdle. Although fish are the main diet ingredient in wild otters from all sections of the world, having enough fresh fish for otter farm needs is another matter. The Sevins soon discovered the solution was not frozen fish. Lee Roy said he believes frozen fish are lethal when thawed and fed to otters. A replacement for the main otter diet ingredient had to be found. The bayou solution was skinned nutria carcasses, which were widely available from trappers. Although otters do not appear to prey upon nutria in the wild, Sevin had observed several otters at a time ganging up to kill a nutria. This red meat rodent needs only to be gutted, then either frozen for later use or ground for a successful primary ingredient in a balanced otter diet.
Wild otter diets vary according to what happens to be available in the region. Fish always seem to top the list in percentages of discoveries determined by examination of stomach contents. Otters are very capable of catching fish. Frequently they eat on shore, but they also sometimes like to roll on their backs in the water to eat a fish like a corn on the cob, scales and all. At times they kill more fish than they want to eat, seemingly for the fun of it, and that is not unnoticed by catfish farmers who understandably take a dim view of the waste.
One curious wild otter behavior is the use of regular toilet areas. Savvy trappers learn to look for these places where the species crosses over land from one pond to another. More than one otter customarily uses these toilet areas, and traps are often placed where the animals leave or enter the water.
Some trappers believe these toilet areas contain both feces and regurgitated fish scales. However, the literature does not support otter regurgitation as a common activity. Accumulations of fish scales without apparent fecal material is most likely the result of weathering. Sevin reported that his captive otters did not regurgitate indigestible foods.
Through trial and error over the years, Lee Roy and Diane have perfected otter diets sans fish that are now accepted and used worldwide for captive animals in zoos and elsewhere. In addition to a 75 percent base of ground red meat, other essential ingredients now include a chick starter feed produced by Purina, powdered milk, eggs, carrots and cod liver oil.
“You gotta’ have the cod liver oil,” according to Sevin, or the otters will lose their fur shininess and luster.
Crawfish are particularly liked by the species if they are available. To the chagrin of many crawfish farmers, otters sometimes camp out on the crawfish ponds, raid the crawfish traps, and have been known to completely eliminate the pond within a week’s time. A so-inclined otter may kill 100 pounds of crawfish weekly, not eating the majority after its appetite is fulfilled. That can add up at today’s price of $3 per pound live weight.
Muskrats are sometimes killed by otters but don’t appear to be a preferred food. Lee Roy said that otters frequently kill moccasins in the bayou, eating all but the heads. That behavior is not unlike western badgers who commonly kill rattlesnakes, also discarding the heads. Small alligators are also killed and eaten by otters in the delta, but what goes around comes around when the gators reach larger sizes.
Sevin reported that three color phases of otters inhabit Louisiana delta lands. Dark brown, almost black specimens occur in wetlands shaded by Cypress trees. Chocolate brown color phases are often found in the marsh grass regions of the delta, and a larger, light brown color is most common in the salt water at land’s end. Lee Roy observed that in the salt water marshes, mink and raccoons were larger and lighter colors too, perhaps as a response to a more varied diet as well as the harsh effects of the sun and salt water.
Demand for otters
From the start of the Bayou Otter Farm, demand for otters increased rapidly as word spread about how these animals survived the rigors of shipment and adapted well into new environments. Success right at the farm was unprecedented as well with less than five percent mortality counting thousands of otters over the 41 year farming effort. Trap injuries as a result of trapping with appropriate foothold traps was not even significant in this small mortality, according to Sevin, who is convinced most mortalities were a result of improper handling, diseases, or accidents.
Lee Roy Sevin soon learned the demands on his time at home prevented him from trapping as sheds, cages, and a fencing of his property was needed to protect the otters from diseases that might be brought in by wild animals or wandering pets. A vaccination program was necessary with injections of antibiotics for new arrivals, then injections of both canine and feline distemper vaccines. (Adult otters are susceptible to canine distemper; puppies, feline distemper). Spotting talent, Lee Roy granted his wife the title of Chief Nurse of the Bayou Otter Farm.
Demand for an ever-increasing supply of acclimated otters was a boon to bayou trappers as Lee Roy left cages and picked up live animals on his rounds of the marshes. Twenty to 30 trappers annually benefited with newfound wealth due to Lee Roy’s need for live otters as well as skinned nutrias. Prices paid were often more than double the current fur values. However, many trappers had to be trained for the otter recovery program. For one thing, Lee Roy demanded the otters be caught only in number 11 longspring traps because injury had to be eliminated or minimized. All handling had to be accomplished with large nets rather than catchpoles with a snare loop. “You just can’t use a catchpole on an otter,” Lee Roy explained, “or you will find them dead the next day.” His view is lethal artery or vein damage occurs as otters fight being neck-snared.
Sevin also had a formula for the otter producers. “When I bought an otter that died,” said Sevin, “that trapper was on probation. If I got another otter from him that also died, he was out of business.”
Since Lee Roy was the only live otter market, there was a real incentive on the part of the trappers to use the right traps, handle the animals softly and according to directions.
In order to help the nutria trappers catch more otters, Sevin was free with otter trapping advice and tips learned the hard way. One suggestion was to always use a dead wood stake rather than a fresh-cut green stake as otters are wary of anything unnatural or seemingly out of place. Another great trapping trick recognizes an otter’s need to dry their fur regularly. They frequently meet this need in the coastal marshes by piling up a bushel basket sized nest of Spanish moss to roll and preen in.
“Just placing such a pile where an otter might be swimming by is a powerful attraction for an otter to land just where you have your trap,” said Sevin with a smile.
Concerning otter traps, Sevin was amused for years to read messages on cartons of Woodstream number three and four traps recommending them for otters. Sevin disagreed: “You get more snapped traps than catches with these larger traps. Because their jaw spread is so great, they are too slow closing. Besides that, they are too hard on the otter. The otter has a small foot. What you need is a small trap that is fast.”
When questioned as to the values of cage traps for otters in the Bayou, Sevin smiled and said, “It’s hard to catch otters in a cage trap. Once in a great while you might catch a young one, but adult otters are too wise and will circle right around those things.”
The farm soon grew to try to meet an ever-increasing demand. Several hundred newly captured otters had to be housed every trapping season. Getting them to eat was always challenging. Talking helped, but sometimes it would take as long as two or three days before an otter would accept the offering of food. After that, talking to encourage further eating wasn’t really necessary, but Lee Roy confides his wife couldn’t do the feeding chores without talking to all the captive otters in baby talk gibberish.
Farm work started at 6 a.m. and lasted until dark many days. Grinding, mixing and feeding was required twice daily, and a real chore with as many as 500 hungry otters asking for breakfast. A stickler for cleanliness, Sevin insisted on power washing the cages and floors twice daily. Help had to be hired as well, and the Bayou Otter Farm required a full-time effort from both Sevins and two additional employees for many years. Turnaround times from the wild to a market were never quicker than 15 days and sometimes as long as six weeks. Lee Roy needed to assured his captives were eating, adjusted, disease-free and rested for another journey. It was later discovered this acclimation and resting period was important for successful relocation elsewhere.
The number of otters purchased from trappers varied from year to year. If the winter weather is warmer than usual, the otters would be more skittish and difficult for trappers to catch. At least 150 of the fish eaters would be purchased in a typical trapping season, some years twice that many made a boat ride from the marshes to the farm.
One bonus or byproduct of the otter business was pregnant females were often whelped. Suspect females were put into special larger pens with attached nest boxes to provide security and quietness for the arrival of the pups. One to six pups were soon born, with an average litter size of two-to-four. Since these animals were adapted to cage life and the presence of man right from the start, they made superior animals for zoo life.
Returning otters to former habitat
Otter orders in the early years of the Bayou Otter Farm were mostly from zoos. Healthy and spoiled with southern hospitality, literally hundreds of otters were delivered to zookeepers as far away as England, Australia, and Japan.
While early explorers noted river otters frequented nearly all waterways across this land as settlement occurred, something seemed to happen in the late 1800s and early 1900s to reduce and eliminate wild otter populations in many central and mid-western states. Published literature on this matter always concludes the decline and extirpation of the species in many states “may” have been the result of any or a combination of impacts, namely
- Habitat elimination (human encroachment)
- Habitat destruction (pollution, water quality, available prey species)
- Over-harvesting (trapping)
The first step before any species should be reintroduced where they are absent (or restocked where populations are extremely low) is to find out what happened to harm the historic population. Surely, if the problem still exists, it must be identified and corrected before healthy animals are once again introduced.
While the effects of civilization along American waterways are certainly profound and will remain profound, that one factor alone does not explain the decline of river otters in the central and mid-western states. Environmental studies in the 1960s and 1970s helped a great deal to discover many waterways were polluted with toxic substances. Widespread use of the pesticide DDT was documented as causing a drastic decline in bald eagles as their eggs became fragile and broke in the nests. Heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, nickel, copper, and zinc polluted many streams and rivers with disastrous effects on several wildlife species. Acid raid caused many lakes in the New England states to become devoid of fish. Importantly, in addition to the heavy metals mentioned, the presence of high levels of PCBs in waterways was also discovered to have disastrous effects upon river otters.
Due to the “multiplier effect” of contaminants moving up the food chain, river otters may be our best indicator species of water quality. Consequently, an otter’s health closely reflects the condition of the ecosystem. Recent research indicates that certain pollutant levels in delta otters are lower than other regions. Not insignificantly, this speaks for the water quality in the coastal marshes and helps explain why the species has always been abundant in this special place.
Environmental laws and voluntary actions on the part of many industries resulted in considerable cleansing of our waterways. DDT was banned outright by the federal government. Factories discharging pollutants were forced to contain and dispose of toxic substances appropriately. Farmers changed their ways too with increased terracing to reduce erosion while feedlots were moved away from waterways. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, several state game departments began to realize the time had come to reintroduce otters where they had been extirpated or existed only in small remnant populations. Because otters are well liked by the general public, support for reintroductions and restocking alike was popular.
For knowledgeable trappers, it is difficult to believe unregulated trapping around the turn of the 20th Century could have decimated the otters in so many central states. It might be argued that trapping activity has historically been concentrated in the heavily populated northeastern states where the river otter was never eliminated, trapping seasons or no trapping seasons. Still, if a species is under other stresses, trapping surely had an additive effect to mortality.
Colorado took the lead beginning in 1976 to reestablish river otters. Some mistakes were made initially that benefited other interested states soon after. For one thing, the initial reintroductions at high altitudes didn’t seem to take. Another discovery was the numbers being freed were too small, sometimes only a few animals. Apparently lone otters seek some socialization with other otters. If companionship is not discovered, wanderlust from the reintroduction sites seem to be encouraged.
From 1988-91, Colorado swapped bighorn sheep for otters from Oregon for bighorn sheep and reintroduced larger numbers of otters with much greater success. These animals came primarily from Oregon’s Willamette and Columbia River systems. Several distinct populations as a result of otter plantings in the Rocky Mountain National Park, the Delores River and San Miguel drainages are now believed to be stable to increasing.
Colorado is now exploring the possibility of using otters imprinted to man to catch trout that prey upon an endangered sucker in one river system. The theory is that the imprinted otters might prey upon problem predator trout, then be recovered quickly and easily in the event the hand-raised animals select the endangered suckers instead.
The initiative to inject a new otter population required a sizeable investment and commitment by the involved states. Money had to be found. If habitat quality proved appropriate to support the species, expensive internal radio transmitters had to be surgically implanted in many otters to track their whereabouts. Significant numbers of healthy animals would be needed for release over a period of several years. Follow up work over a significant time frame was also required to measure success, or the lack of success.
Trappers were intimately involved in otter reintroduction efforts in several states as well. A number of state trappers’ associations raised funds selling T-shirts and other items to help pay for otter purchases. To reduce or eliminate accidental captures of newly released otters, many trappers voluntarily used beaver sets such as trap sets baited with aspen or poplar branches that are selective for beavers only.
The state demand for significant numbers of healthy otters created a boon for the Bayou Otter Farm operation, especially when it was observed Lee Roy Sevin’s wild-caught otters were noted as surviving and thriving best in their new environments far from Dixieland.
A number of things have been learned as a result of injecting this species into former habitats.
Wild caught rather than pen raised otters survive best in the wild.
The release of predominantly pregnant females also increases the odds newly released animals will stay reasonably close to release sites.
And perhaps most importantly, due in large part to Colorado’s pioneering experiences, sizable releases were recognized as important to success.
The most outstanding otter planting success has been achieved by Missouri. Sevin recalled with a smile that Missouri requested 845 of his otters in 1981. He agreed with the stipulation he could deliver that number over a period of several years. A little game department wheeling and dealing occurred with the result of delivery of Missouri turkeys to Kentucky, who in turn purchased the otters in Louisiana for delivery in Missouri. Other such trades between state game departments also occurred to benefit the species and the public in other states as well.
The status of river otters prior to the initial restocking in Missouri was bleak indeed. Only a handful of otters were known to exist in the southeastern boot heel of the state. The release of those 845 otters between 1982 and 1992 resulted in an estimated population of 11,000 to 18,000 animals today.
It became clear with this burgeoning population that controls were necessary. As a result, an otter trapping season was established in Missouri in November 1996. The first trapping season was challenged with a lawsuit against the state conservation department by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal rights group based in California. The court ruled that Missouri’s otter trapping season was not “arbitrary and capricious,” as the suit alleged, and said that the state had followed all proper procedures is establishing wildlife rules.
In a second lawsuit, ALDF was joined by another animal rights group, the Washington DC based Humane Society of the United States, in US District Court. This lawsuit aimed at curtailing the market for otter pelts by seeking to block the US Fish & Wildlife Service from awarding CITES export tags to Missouri. This lawsuit was dismissed in 1998.
An otter research study in progress may shed some light on the dynamic recovery of the species in the Show-me State of Missouri. Contrary to the literature elsewhere, the evidence is that 40 percent of the female otters are breeding successfully as yearlings instead of two year-olds. Needless to say, that phenomenon is now being configured into the computer population models to more accurately monitor the true status of the species in the wild.
Sevin’s otters are doing very well in other states today. Ohio is notable. Although only 123 otters were reintroduced in the Buckeye State from 1986-92, they were mostly pregnant females flown there from the bayou and introduced into four watersheds. While none were known to exist in Ohio prior to reintroduction, the population in fall of 2000 is officially estimated to be 1700 individuals.
Illinois is also experiencing tremendous success. Some 346 otters were released in Illinois from 1994-97 with the result the population has been upgraded in 1999 from state endangered to state threatened. Assuming the current repopulation continues, it is now anticipated all requirements to de-list the species as state threatened will occur by 2003.
Although otter counting is difficult, this species is reproducing and has expanded far from introductions sites in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Kansas is now experiencing an influx of Missouri otters. Nebraska reports the species now inhabits the Platte River as well as several other drainages where they were not reintroduced. Iowa also reports otters are now being found in many drainages where they were reintroduced as well as not.
Keeping otters near release sites is not always easy. Introducing pregnant females seems to keep them reasonably close by. The release of many instead of few also helps ensure success. Otters that have been acclimated for a time before release may also help. Happily or unhappily, dispersals happen. The record at present is one otter released in Nebraska and caught again in Missouri, a distance of 600 river miles.
There may be another significant reason otter injections into the mid-west and central states fared so well in the 1980s-90s. Coincidental with cleaner water, beaver populations flourished. The resulting dams, ponds, and flowages created superb habitat for otters for as well. In addition to a better fishery behind the dams, the use of old beaver houses and dens is well-documented in the research literature as the preferred location for natal dens and otter pup raising.
Never an abundant species in the arid southwest, 46 river otters were released in one drainage in Arizona during 1981-83. At present, that population is considered now to be only stable.
L. canadensis sonora, a southwestern subspecies of river otter, occurred historically in the Rio Grande, Colorado, and Canadian river drainages in the southwestern United States. Although only six specimens were ever collected, this larger than average sized river otter subspecies was last known to exist in New Mexico. Recent scientific efforts to locate living animals has proven fruitless.
Trapper harvest data is important in the proper management of otters today. Sophisticated computer models are now able to calculate the values of size, sex, age and reproduction to determine more accurately than every before the health and status of a species that is naturally secretive.
Boogalee and retirement
Boogalee came along to disrupt order around the farm in 1986. The male pup’s mother died within three days of birthing. Mrs. Sevin promised herself that if she “saw the pup through, (she) would never take money for it.” Under the care of the chief nurse, Boogalee fared well and soon had run of the place.
“Boogalee was hell. Into everything. But he was smart too. He could have written a letter if he could have held a pencil in his webbed foot. One wouldn’t stick behind his little ear either,” Lee Roy said with a slight smile partially hidden behind his moustache.
Lee Roy Sevin retired his Bayou Otter Farm in 1999, saying simply with a shrug of his shoulders, “It was time.” While there remained a market for his acclimated wild-caught specimens, feeble fur prices for Louisiana nutrias had significantly reduced trapper numbers and trapper efforts. Although Sevin was still healthy and energetic at 71 years of age, the fact was gathering otters and the necessary nutria carcasses became difficult with so few trappers working their leases.
Due to his otter expertise, Sevin has been an honored guest and presenter at several wildlife symposiums around the world. During the discussions with the European Union about the type of traps needed and used around the globe, many European politicians were amazed at his story of success using foothold traps to capture and relocate otters. Then, he said, “They turned from the facts and went about their political agenda.”
Lee Roy will readily admit he was able to fill a void because the timing of his operation was right. Excellent prices for abundant nutrias stimulated abundant trapping activity in his beloved bayou lands, and always abundant bayou otters were also available in large numbers as mostly secondary target species for the fur harvesters.
Undaunted by the fact no one had success collecting and acclimating wild-caught otters for translocation elsewhere, Sevin persevered and succeeded to the delight of zookeepers and game departments literally around the world. From a humble beginning as another Cajun trapper in southern Louisiana coastal marshes, Lee Roy Sevin’s entrepreneurship, vision, and a common sense hard work ethic culminated in many river otter transplant successes that will long outlive him.
The fact is Lee Roy Seven has delivered more than 2400 of the nearly 4000 otters that have been used for reintroductions and restocking in 18 states. Virtually all of his submissions were taken from the bayou country in southern Louisiana in foothold traps by fur trappers. Today, thanks to the efforts to clean up our waterways and the support of conservationists everywhere, river otters are once again thriving as stable or increasing populations where they missed filling their rightful ecological niches for decades.
Reflecting on his life’s work, Lee Roy Sevin simply said today, “It makes me feel good to know our otters are doing well. I never liked to kill an otter anyway.”
A boat ride through the bayou country is mostly nostalgic and a little sad during trapping season today. Extremely poor prices for nutria pelts have resulted in very little trapping activity. Many trapper camps are desolate and becoming ravaged by the seasons and weather. The day when nutrias were being taken in large numbers is past for the time being. Without the benefit of nutria control by private trappers, land companies now regularly patrol the ditches and canals shooting the overly abundant and destructive nutrias to leave them lay for the ‘gators and an occasional eagle or buzzard.
Meanwhile, bite by bite, nutrias continue to do their thing – eat, make babies and eat some more. If and until reasonable fur markets develop for this non-indigenous species to spur trapping activities, we suspect biologists are right when they calculate conservatively 100,000 acres of coastal Louisiana wetlands will continue to be severely and negatively impacted annually.
But the otter restoration work is mostly accomplished now. Currently, we are aware river otter restorations are only occurring in New York. That effort was begun in 1995 using New York otters. They being trapped and relocated from watersheds where they are abundant to suitable areas where they are not.
Americans need to realize our best living barometer of water quality and the environment is back, and is doing very, very well. We need to articulate the fact that trappers using foothold traps was essential to this unprecedented reintroduction success.
One more thing. It is time conservationists and wildlife lovers everywhere recognize the contributions made by Lee Roy Sevin, his wife Diane, and all those who provided this valuable, enjoyable resource from the coastal marshes of Louisiana to wherever they were wanted or needed.
It is time to say, “Thank you Mr. Sevin, sir.”
This report was made possible with a cooperative effort of Lee Roy Sevin; the National Trappers Association ;Don Aycock and the Louisiana Fur and Alligator Advisory Council; Greg Linscombe and the state of Louisiana; Glen Chambers, Dave Hamilton and the state of Missouri; and several other state game agencies who responded with our requests for current data. We profoundly thank you!
About The Author
All Authors Of This Article: | Tom Krause |