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Victims of overhunting in the 1770s and of strangely high hide prices in the Depression, the inventive otter began its mountain comeback in 1984.
Bruce Anderson claims he was at the right place at the right time when the newly named Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency initiated a plan to protect indigenous species in danger from manmade threats.
“I was real lucky,” says the retired TWRA endangered species biologist from Crossville, Tennessee. “I hit that window of opportunity when they were trying to restore some of these endangered or threatened populations.”
Anderson felt even luckier when, in 1984, he took on his first major restoration assignment: to return river otters to the Cumberland Plateau. The playful, enterprising critters had been plentiful across the U.S. until the 1700s, when fur trading rose and public officials were often paid with otter hides. Widespread habitat destruction accelerated the problem.
“The real demise of most of the river otter populations in Tennessee occurred during the Great Depression, when fur prices for some reason were unaccountably high and a river otter hide would be worth about a week’s wages,” Anderson says.
By 1958, they had disappeared from middle and east Tennessee, as well as other upland areas of the Southeast.
Anderson and his crew acquired six otters from Louisiana, implanted tracking devices, and in late 1984 set them free in the Obed Wild and Scenic River in the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area. No one knew if the swamp-born animals could adapt to the brisk mountain climate, especially when temperatures plunged to 24 degrees below zero and the Obed River froze solid a few months after their release.
“They passed the acid test,” Anderson recalls, sounding relieved after all these years. “I was a little bit worried about ‘em but they never missed a beat. They just went right on and survived and began to proliferate. Once we knew they were gonna make it, we started a larger-scale reintroduction program.”