Not many fur trappers in southeastern Illinois have taken advantage of the state’s new river otter season that began Nov. 10, 2012.
Equality fur buyer Bob Williams has bought only one, from a trapper in Enfield, though the otters are prevalent in the region. Of course, trappers are not common these days either.
That otter’s skin is rolled up in a bag in Williams’ deep freeze. Saturday he took several bags of various pelts to Marion to an agent of the North American Fur Auctions based in Toronto, Canada. The company is the successor to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur auction business which is the oldest corporation in North America.
For the cost of a $5 temporary tag available at sporting goods outlets, trappers can try their hand at catching an otter in the river bottoms, though historically otter catches have been accidental. Once the trapper has the animal he must wait for a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species tag to be mailed denoting it is a North American river otter. That CITES tag remains in the hide’s eyehole up to the point it is rendered into a garment.
Otter were reintroduced in Illinois in the 1990s and have been steadily growing in population.
“We’ve had otter here a long time,” Williams said.
“People who trap beaver know you can’t hardly catch a beaver without catching otter.”
Before the otter season was started the state had asked those who accidentally trapped otters to report them, but received so many reports the rule was changed to simply leaving the dead otter on the ground, Williams said.
The otter season means something productive can come out of the dead otters.
Williams believes the season may also help keep the otter population from becoming a nuisance to farmers. Otters are notorious for setting up residence at farm ponds and enjoying a smorgasbord of fish until the pond is cleaned out.
“They will catch the fish and climb on the bank and devour them,” Williams said.
Pond owners might have an otter living in their pond if they find piles of scales from bass and bluegill on pond banks.
Otters are fast swimmers and usually have no problem catching any fish trying to elude them. Williams said for this reason there had been an effort to allow the issuance of nuisance permits to trap otters. Instead, the state opened the trapping season to otter for the first time since 1929. Trappers are permitted five otters and the season closes March 31.
According to Illinois Department of Natural Resources there were 11,000 otters in the state in 2009 and a population beyond 30,000 was estimated by 2014.
Williams says the Saline River has its share of otters as does Horseshoe Ditch that leaves Glen O. Jones Lake. He also knows of ponds with otters.
“Just about anyplace that has fish,” Williams said.
The otter was a unique creature for Williams to buy, now in his 64th year of being a trapper and fur enthusiast. He began the sport at age 16 and over the years the trends have changed.
“I had 600 coon last year, but now not a dozen muskrat,” Williams said.
Theories abound regarding the scarcity of muskrat including farm chemical use, raptors, dogs and coyotes.
Coyote, fox, some mink, squirrel — who hair is used in fly tying, beaver and possum all were a part of the delivery Williams made to Marion Saturday, but the otter was not among them. He had not had time to prepare the otter hide in time.
The otter market dropped significantly due to a cultural change in Asia several years ago, Williams said. It seems odd to consider religious beliefs in Tibet have had a profound effect on the price of the hide of an otter living in the Gallatin County river bottoms, but Williams said it is true.
In Tibetan culture the otter hide was prized for its fortune.
“They believe if you wrap a newborn in otter skin it’s a blessing on the child for the rest of its life,” Williams said.
That belief was good news for otter trappers who could expect between $100 to $300 for a hide due to the Tibetan demand. That ended in the mid-2000s.
“The Dalai Lama got upset,” Williams said.
The Dalai Lama spoke out against the fur trade saying such use of animals was opposed to Buddhist teachings.
The North American otter trade felt the fallout from the pronouncement.
“They plummeted, went from $300 to $50,” Williams said.
“Now they are starting to work their way back up.”
Some areas in China have the belief in the luck of the otter, but are not bound by trade restrictions. This demand, Williams said, puts the price of an otter pelt at between $75 and $150.
That is still pretty good money considering a raccoon may bring $3 to $30, a mink — once the most prized — now brings around $20 for a good male and a muskrat may bring $10.
The new otter season will not be making the country fur buyer a rich man, at least not this season. But fur buying is a hobby for Williams in his retirement.
He said he may earn $2,000 to $3,000 a year at fur buying, despite the long hours he spends in his fur shed. On Friday Williams had three bags to take to sale, each of which could hold up to 50 coon hides. Processing each of those hides took him about an hour’s labor skinning, scraping, stretching and brushing out.