Otters, Wolves and the Human Problem

Multi-use by a multitude of users.

  • By: Maximilian Werner
april utah.jpg

Men and dogs had broken trail through the knee-deep snow, and I followed their tracks to the now dormant cattails that grow along the river. The snow was packed and spattered with blood. Shiny red shot gun shells lay in the beaten snow and the raw January wind had blown mallard feathers into the boot tracks of the men who had killed them.

The scene reminds me that this section of the middle Provo River, which is the last before Deer Creek Reservoir, is a multiuse area where I may expect to encounter bird hunters, bait fishermen and fly-fishermen on a single afternoon.

And these are just a few of the human users. The river was frozen at its edges and globs of slush floated by in the fast, black water. On the far side, in the slow water, the heads of two muskrats emerged for a couple of seconds and then disappeared.

Even in such mind-numbing cold, my senses piqued because for an instant I thought I was seeing two river otters. Last November, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources released two of several river otters planned for reintroduction into this area. Although every angler with whom I’ve spoken welcomes the otters and views their return as a way to enrich the environment, there have been the typical grumblings by those for whom the term multiuse refers primarily to humans. Their largely unfounded concern is that the otters will eat all the nice fish, but analyses of otter behavior suggest just the opposite.

Local fly fisher, activist and owner of Western Rivers Flyfisher, Steve Schmidt, touched on this subject in his blog, Walkabouts: “Otters do eat trout, but given the option they prefer other more palatable species: carp, chubs or whitefish. They also have a liking for crawfish, a crustacean that is prolific in Deer Creek Reservoir, as are carp. It is known that a predator based ecosystem leads to a more vigorous and stable ecosystem.”

It is also known that the Provo River offers a smorgasbord of the aforementioned non-game fish species.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, opponents of the otter reintroduction program still fear that the otters will harm the fishery. But of course this fear has almost nothing to do with the fish, which if we’re being honest are considered a means to an end.

The trout have next to no value in-and-of-themselves; rather, they are valuable to the extent they provide economic and personal benefit. For my own part, I outright reject the notion that the otters will in any way affect my ability to catch some nice fish and reduce my enjoyment of the river environment. Far from it. There are thousands of fish in the river and more than enough to go around.

The economic argument is a favorite in Utah and elsewhere in the country where people worry about money, but as far as I can tell, it is equally specious. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. put it best when he said that 100 percent of the time, good economic policy is identical to good environmental policy. Why this fact seems to have been lost on some of my fellow Utahans and countrymen isn’t entirely clear, but I think it stems from fear, which for some people translates into a sense of entitlement.

Unfortunately, entitlement usually goes hand-in-hand with ignorance, and we should all fear ignorance, since it is the condition for eradication, human and otherwise.

I recently returned from a steelhead fishing trip in Stanley, Idaho , where I experienced this mindset firsthand. But in this part of Idaho, the otter is not the problem: As I drove over Galena Summit and descended into the Stanley Basin, I came up on an old Ford whose license plate read NO WOLVES.

The driver was going way too slow for my blood, and frankly I was irritated by his extremism, so I dropped it into fourth and passed him. I couldn’t resist putting a face to the message (what does the person for whom the only good wolf is a dead wolf look like, I wondered?), so as I came up along side him I looked over and saw a man in his late sixties. His face was a deep reddish brown—I guessed—from spending long days out in the weather and his leather gloves were on the dash. Perhaps he is a rancher and his cattle were taken by wolves.

Or maybe he is an elk hunter who, like the people of Utah with the otter, feared that the wolf was taking too great a toll on the elk herds, which in turn would mean fewer elk for hunters. Whatever he is, when he’s gone others will replace him, at least for a while. Based on our current trajectory, it seems probable that the human species will some day disappear from the Earth.

But what is certain is that if we do not change our view of other animals and their rightful place on this planet, they will disappear long before we do.

Maximilian Werner is the author of Black River Dreams, published recently by Barclay Creek Press. He wrote the 2nd place essay in the 2008 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award contest, co-sponsored by Fly Rod & Reel. He lives in Utah.