When we look around the wilds of the Prairie State, there are real successes in wildlife recovery. One of the greatest success stories in Illinois is the return of the American river otter. Once heavily populated throughout the United States, the American river otter was driven to the brink of extinction.

The story behind the return of the sleek, brown “clowns of the riverbank” is one of unparalleled success.

Even in early pioneer days, the American river otter’s numbers were plummeting. Native Americans had long valued the plush, waterproof fur of the river otter and held their pelts in high value. When Europeans arrived in the 16th century, the downfall of the otter was inevitable as fur became a valuable commodity. Initially, Native Americans exchanged pelts for kettles, knives, blankets, alcohol, firearms and other goods. However, Europeans soon picked up trapping, and the French Voyageurs became legendary fur trappers.

The harvest of furbearers was unregulated, and the number of harvested pelts was astronomical. As otters grew scarce in Illinois waters, otter pelts were brought from farther afield.

An otter sighting in Illinois was rare by 1900, and in 1929, Illinois made it illegal to trap them.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 led to the improvement of riparian habitat, but the otter population did not immediately rebound. In 1977, the river otter was declared a state threatened species. By 1989, it was listed as a state endangered species.

For three years, beginning in 1994, a re-introduction effort began with 346 otters released in central and southern Illinois. Officials were optimistic, as beavers were flourishing and beaver dams make good otter habitats.

In the years following, biologists carefully monitored their movement. Tracking data showed the river otters liked their new digs throughout the state. The otter population took off, and in 1999, their status was upgraded from state endangered to state threatened.

The otter was removed from the Illinois state endangered species list in 2004, and by 2009 the population was a healthy 11,000. Using population modeling, biologists suggested the river otter could sustain a regulated harvest, and in 2012, Illinois opened otter trapping season.

Stan McTaggart, IDNR program manager for wildlife diversity, oversees furbearer research. He reported in Outdoor Illinois Wildlife Journal that the success of the river otter re-introduction program has “likely succeeded everyone’s expectations.”

Today in Illinois, river otters can be found in every county, with an overall population estimated greater than 20,000 and possibly as high as 30,000.

Good habitat and proper management are key components of the success. However, some complain otters are taking their fish.

“Otters are skilled hunters and very opportunistic,” reported McTaggart, “but they move through areas so quickly, they rarely stay long enough to decimate local prey populations.”

If given the opportunity, nothing is more entertaining than watching a family of river otters cavort and play alongside the banks of a river or stream.