The North Dakota Game and Fish Department continues to take comment on a plan to implement a limited otter trapping season in November, and barring something drastic, the season will be part of the small game and furbearer proclamation the department sends to Gov. Doug Burgum in mid-July.
"That's when we would finalize it, but with the way it's looking right now, it doesn't appear there's a lot of concerns," said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck. "We plan on moving forward with it unless we hear differently."
As I reported in late December, the proposed season would open Nov. 27 and continue through March 15, 2018 or until a quota of 15 otters is reached. Game and Fish outlined the proposal during its fall circuit of advisory board meetings and is taking additional input during the spring advisory board meetings that began this past Monday.
The department is mandated to hold the meetings twice a year in each of the state's eight advisory board districts, and the meeting for District 4, which includes Grand Forks, Nelson, Pembina and Walsh counties, is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Michigan (N.D.) Community Center. Rainbow Lodge is hosting the meeting and will be serving food and refreshments.
"There's nothing new" with the proposal, Williams said. "We're still taking comments if people have any questions. It's been very quiet. We just have not had any concerns at the public meetings so far."
Williams said the department is proposing a quota of 15 otters because that's about the number trappers have taken incidentally each of the past five years.
"We don't anticipate any more than what people have already been incidentally taking, but this would give them the opportunity to keep that critter and get some enjoyment out of being able to trap an otter," Williams said.
According to "The Mammals of North Dakota" by Bob Seabloom, UND professor emeritus of biology, river otters never were abundant in North Dakota, and reports by the early 1960s had dwindled to two, "probably wanderers from Minnesota or Canada."
Numbers since 2000 have grown substantially, Seabloom writes, especially along the Red, Sheyenne, Missouri and Souris rivers.
Williams said otters are most abundant in the eastern part of the state.
"That is certainly where they are concentrated," he said.
Marty Egeland, outreach biologist for Game and Fish in northeast North Dakota, said he first saw otters in the early 2000s along the English Coulee in Grand Forks.
Otters also have been part of a couple of different research projects in the northeast part of the state to learn about their distribution through trail cameras and looking for droppings, tracks and other signs.
"It's one of those things-you don't see them all the time, but they're there," Egeland said. "We've had people get them in beaver traps. I wouldn't say there's a super high population, but they seem to be in every little watershed."
For those of you wondering about the value of an otter pelt, Fur Harvest Auction Inc., in North Bay, Ont., reported otters sold at auction Jan. 17 fetched an average price of $25.14 and a top price of $60. That was better than last year, the auction firm said.
Deer tag prediction
No surprise, but this winter's impact on deer populations has been a hot topic among sportsmen attending advisory board meetings so far this spring, Williams said. December was tough on deer and other wildlife across most of the state, he said, but conditions for the most part moderated after that.
Ample snow conditions allowed Game and Fish to conduct aerial deer surveys in January across most of the state, and some areas were flown again in March. Deer numbers in some of those areas dropped about 10 percent from January to March, a number Game and Fish says is about average winter mortality.
Williams said North Dakota deer hunters last year had a success rate of about 66 percent. It remains to be seen how many licenses will be available this fall, but Williams says the number likely will be similar to last year, when Game and Fish offered 49,000 deer gun licenses.
"It's going to be a little tricky as far as trying to come up with what we feel is a good number to allocate," Williams said. "My prediction is it probably isn't going to be a lot different."
On the upside, Williams said he expects Game and Fish will offer more mule deer tags this year and perhaps expand the number of units in which it offers mule deer doe tags. Winter doesn't appear to have had much of an impact on mule deer in most areas, Williams said, but a better picture will emerge when the department begins its aerial mule deer surveys in the next week or so.
That also bodes well for pronghorn, which inhabit basically the same areas as mule deer, Williams said. Game and Fish last year offered a pronghorn season in seven units, and that could increase this fall, Williams says.
"Hopefully we can open some additional units," he said.