A Regulated Trapping Season for River Otter: When, Where and Why?

By Shawn Rossler

A conversation about river otters and their management in Indiana isn’t usually a short one. 

Depending on the day, most discussions eventually migrate to a number of subtopics focused on variations of the following questions: All of our neighboring states have a trapping season for otter, why doesn’t Indiana? Is it too soon to have a regulated otter trapping season; didn’t we just reintroduce them? If we do have a season, what is the best management approach? 

All areas of conversation are guaranteed to have passion and debate. The fact these questions come up in conversation is important.

River otters have an interesting history in the Midwest and Indiana. A portion of their story is captured in “A Recipe for Success: Reintroduction of River Otter in Indiana,” also printed in this special issue of the Woodland Steward.

The bottom line from that article is a lot of time and energy were spent to reintroduce river otter back to Indiana, and the efforts have paid off. River otters are doing well and can be found throughout most of their historic range. The story of the river otter continues in Indiana with the next chapter…active management through a regulated trapping season.

Why a trapping season? One reason is the population is doing well (Figure 1). The DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife (DFW) has established harvest seasons for many wildlife species, and these regulated seasons help maintain a balance between habitat, people, and wildlife. Seasons are managed through scientifically based regulations that are enforced by Indiana Conservation Officers to ensure species remain abundant. 

In addition, even though techniques to avoid trapping river otter are actively being used by trappers, more than 100 river otters are incidentally killed each year during legal trapping seasons for other furbearer species. These otter are turned over to the DFW, used for research, and pelts are provided for educational purposes, but the sheer number being turned in is much higher than requests coming in from educators. Allowing these pelts to be retained by trappers reduces chances the resource will be wasted. Plus, the carcasses will still be collected by the DFW to gather valuable biological data.

All of our neighboring states have established otter populations as well as regulated otter trapping seasons. Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and West Virginia all reintroduced river otter in the 1980s and 1990s. Their reintroductions were followed by regulated trapping seasons – the best tool to manage otter populations. Currently, regulated trapping is used to manage river otters in at least 33 states, many of which reintroduced river otter.

Transitioning from monitoring to active management of a population isn’t a short process, especially with a charismatic species like the river otter. The Indiana Natural Resources Commission (NRC) is the rulemaking body with the authority to establish a regulated trapping season. Meetings were planned, regulations and protocols were proposed, and engaged members of the public had several opportunities to review and comment. The entire NRC process takes about two years from start to finish before a season can be implemented.

So what does the otter trapping season look like after going through the rulemaking process?

The river otter season will run concurrent with the beaver trapping season (Nov. 15 to March 15 of the following year). River otter and beaver share similar habitat types. The potential to trap one while targeting the other is always a possibility. 

The DFW has designated 66 counties open for otter trapping with 26 central Indiana counties closed. The counties open to harvest are in watersheds where river otters originally were relocated, have had time to establish, and where populations are doing well. The 26 closed counties are within watersheds where river otters were not reintroduced and have not become established.

There are a few additional requirements, including a two otter seasonal bag limit per trapper. The intent is to provide more equity and opportunity for all trappers interested in trapping an otter.

There also will be a state season quota of 600 otters. If this figure is reached before March 15, the season will close early and all river otters trapped after this point will need to be turned over to the state, without penalty. These conservative sideboards are in place to control harvest levels, especially during the first couple years.

There will be mandatory reporting of harvest (similar to deer and turkey). All trapped river otters will need to be registered through the online Check-IN Game program within 24 hours of harvest. Also, all otters will need to be physically registered with a designated DNR property or Conservation Officer within 15 days after the month of harvest. 

Prior to physical registration, the otter will need to be skinned. A successful trapper will then bring the separated pelt and skinned carcass to a DNR property or Conservation Officer. The pelt will be sealed with a CITES tag and the carcass will be collected so DFW biologists can collect reproductive and age data from the animal. Information from the carcass helps biologists make future recommendations for the season.

What is a CITES tag? CITES stands for the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, an international agreement that governs trade of endangered species.  As a CITES participant, the United States must follow certain requirements. River otters are on Appendix II of CITES, which means they are a “look alike” species to other endangered river otter species found throughout the world. 

To ensure river otters entering international markets were harvested legally in the United States, an unaltered tag must be affixed to the pelt. Each state with a river otter season has uniquely marked tags and general regulations for issuance…but long story short, an otter pelt must have a CITES tag before it can be sold. 

So, the idea of having a river otter season seems straightforward, but there is a lot of coordination and record keeping.

The DNR cares deeply about river otters, as do Indiana trappers. We intend to see otters thrive in Indiana while allowing sustainable harvest in areas where they are doing well and providing them the opportunity to expand their range in central Indiana.

The DNR will closely monitor the new season and work closely with trappers to ensure responsible management and recordkeeping in order to sustain healthy river otter populations. 


Shawn Rossler is the Furbearer Biologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of Fish & Wildlife.