By JIM ABRAMS

While in college studying wildlife management, it wasn’t unusual for a division from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to offer internships to students. Many were short-lived projects covering specific topics.

Some of those nonpaying jobs involved live-trapping beavers, ruffed grouse drumming counts, erosion surveys, habitat improvement projects, checking annual success of nut-bearing trees, counting spring gobblers, clipping muskellunge fins, electrofishing, roadkill surveys, deer aging at check stations, forest stand improvements, park renovations, nesting box surveys … and more.

This gave the students a chance to perform tasks that they were studying while allowing division folks a closer look at potential employees. As you might guess, most jumped in line in the hopes of landing one or more of these placements.

It was to my great pleasure to find that as a wildlife officer, I still had the opportunity to assist on these same types of projects along with the pleasure of a paycheck! To me, these “jobs” are what make the position of wildlife officer so different than other enforcement positions and why it’s so often envied.

I recently got a call from a local landowner whose permissioned deer hunters had captured an interesting photo on their trail camera. It appeared that two wildlife officers were on his property, and he was curious. His first worry was that someone may have violated laws while on his land. His second question was if they needed the landowner’s OK prior to entering.

I asked him to forward the picture. Since I know he’s an avid follower of The Courier, I suggested he keep reading “Field Notes” for my best answer. What the hunter’s camera had captured wasn’t exactly how it seemed.

The men in the photo were wildlife biologists doing a river otter bridge survey along Eagle Creek, just south of Findlay. Annual bridge surveys in watersheds throughout northeastern and southeastern Ohio have been conducted since 2000 to assess the otter’s current distribution and long-term trends. As otters have expanded their range, so has the survey area: It includes areas throughout the state.

For District Two (northwest Ohio), 15 bridge sites were selected within each of the six watershed groups for 90 bridge sites. The survey targets the time between New Year’s Day and mid-February.

The conditions need to be right for the project. Since conditions can rapidly deteriorate, the surveyors have to be ready to go at the drop of Mother Nature’s hat. They’re conducted within three days of a rainfall or snow event to allow otters time to track up banks.

The survey area for each bridge is finished in one day and includes 300 meters upstream and downstream. Tracks, scat, fish remains, latrines and distances from the bridge to the first detected sign are cataloged. A detectability index (the percentage of stream bank having suitable tracking conditions like sandbars and mud) is also determined for each site.

Katie Dennison, the Division of Wildlife’s furbearer biologist, advised that 2016 was the first year for the survey in northwest Ohio. Only two of 91 sites were positive. Since then, otter signs have been detected in Putnam, Seneca, and Wood counties. In 2019, detections have grown to 16 as they continue to expand their range. The state’s highest populations are found in the Grand River and Little Muskingum watersheds.

Bridge surveys are an important tool for tracking distribution and relative abundance of Ohio’s otters. They’re a less biased method of determining distribution, and observers continue to update and expand training to ensure proper identification. This helps distinguish otter signs from other water-loving mammals such as the raccoon, mink and muskrat.

River otters were once widespread throughout North America except for the frozen Arctic and arid Southwest. Ohio’s population was extirpated by the early 1900s due to uncontrolled harvest and, primarily, stream quality degradation.

In 1986, the Division of Wildlife began a seven-year project to reintroduce otters; a project primarily funded through the sale of Ohio hunting licenses. With help from experienced trappers, 123 Arkansas and Louisiana otters were captured unharmed using foothold traps and were released into Grand River, Killbuck Creek, Little Muskingum River and Stillwater Creek.

Otters, which can weigh up to 33 pounds, are well suited for life in the water. They have a long, tapered body covered by short, dense fur; large webbed feet; and a long, flattened, muscular tail that they use as a rudder to help with their hairpin turns while snatching fleeing fish. Otters prefer tributaries of major, unpolluted drainages where there’s little disturbance. Logjams and submerged trees provide resting and feeding habitat.

River otters often go unnoticed due to their nocturnal and crepuscular (active at dawn or dusk) habits, though some may be active during daylight hours if living in an undisturbed area. That’s until the occasional otter finds a farm pond and begins leaving fish heads lying about.

Otters mature in about two years and undergo something of an unusual breeding cycle. They have a delayed implantation of the fertilized egg and an arrested period of development and embryo growth, which results in a gestation period of 290 to 380 days. After the female gives birth to two to four pups, the breeding cycle begins again — usually in early spring.

Once an Ohio endangered species, the river otter is now thriving and expanding its range, thanks to the wise expenditure of sportsmen’s license fees and the work of the Division of Wildlife.

As for biologists or wildlife officers entering private property, Ohio lawmakers have several concerns they must weigh.

1. Wildlife is property of the state, holding such title in trust for the benefit of all people.

2. The mobility of wild animals.

3. Nearly all of the state is of private ownership.

4. Without accessibility, wildlife crimes are easily hidden and management research crippled.

Ohio Revised Code section 1531.14 explains: “Any person … employed by the division of wildlife for the purpose of conducting research and investigation of game or fish … or in any type of work involved in or incident to game or fish restoration projects or in the enforcement of laws or division rules … may enter upon, cross over, be upon, and remain upon privately owned lands for such purposes and shall not be subject to arrest for trespass while so engaged or for such cause thereafter.”

Whenever possible, affected landowners are notified of upcoming management projects either by letter, phone or public notice.

“Whenever people ask me what they can do to help protect wildlife, I always answer, ‘Buy a hunting license.’ And if they say, ‘But I don’t hunt,’ I reply, ‘Then you better buy a duck stamp, too.’ — Rick Hacker

Along the way:

Ohio’s turkey hunting season begins this month. The state is divided into two hunting zones, with one in southern Ohio and the other in the northeast part of the state. South zone hunting is permitted April 22 through May 19, while the northeast zone runs from April 29 through May 26. The youth season will be April 13 to 14.

The Division of Wildlife estimates about 50,000 licensed hunters will participate in spring’s turkey season. You can view the spring turkey zone map and applicable regulations at wildohio.gov

Step outside:

• Today: Flag City Toys that Shoot air, cap and BB gun show, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., the Event Center, 1400 Sixth St., Findlay.

• Tomorrow: Sporting clays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.

• Thursday to Friday: Trap and skeet, open to the public, 5 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.

• April 25 to 28: 148th National Rifle Association annual meetings and exhibits, Indiana Convention Center, 100 S. Capitol Ave., Indianapolis. Visit www.nraam.org

• June 8 to 9: Become a hunter education instructor, Division of Wildlife, 952 Lima Ave., Findlay. Training is free but a background check is required prior to the academy. Submit your registration at least two weeks in advance. Refer questions to Jaron Beck at 419-429-8324.

Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard 45867-0413 or via email at jimsfieldnotes@aol.com

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