Deer, wolves and bears -- oh my!

Rebounding populations put some animals back in the cross hairs.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- Black bears in New Jersey and Florida, wolves in the Rockies and Alaska, deer and Canada geese just about everywhere -- state wildlife officials nationwide are finding themselves allowing the hunting or trapping of animals once thought on the brink of vanishing.
The proposals are sometimes met with outrage when the animals have deep roots in the public imagination.
Ohio wildlife officials on Wednesday proposed the first limited trapping season for river otters, wily and playful fur-bearers whose numbers have soared since 123 animals trapped in Arkansas and Louisiana were first reintroduced in the state's eastern half starting just 18 years ago.
"In a human-dominated landscape, it's really tough to keep wildlife in the numbers we feel are appropriate," said Greg Butcher, zoologist and director of bird conservation for the Washington-based National Audubon Society. "We have affected the environment so much that a lot of natural checks and balances are gone."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that wildlife causes $1 billion in crop and livestock damage each year, while deer collisions injure about 29,000 motorists a year and cost another $1 billion. Bird collisions cost the aviation industry $740 million annually.
Familiar story
The otter's story is familiar: Overtrapping drove the native species from Ohio by the early 1900s -- but lacking wolves or other natural predators since reintroduction, about 4,300 of the sleek, graceful animals now can be found along rivers in two-thirds of the state. And farmers are starting to complain.
"One thing about otters: They're very efficient predators," said Dave Risley, a division biologist. A family of otters can eat half the fish in a privately stocked pond before the owner gets wind of their visits.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources' wildlife division has proposed to the eight citizens who make up its Ohio Wildlife Council a two-month, permit-only trapping season. The division will hold open houses around the state March 6 and a public hearing March 10. The council votes in April.
Kentucky began its first otter season in its 13 westernmost counties this winter, running through February. Otter pelts sell for $80 to $120, while muskrats -- the most commonly trapped animal for fur -- bring about $5, Risley said.
National conservation groups have protested government permits for wolf-hunting from helicopters and airplanes to protect moose and caribou herds in Alaska.
Starting in February, private landowners in Montana and Idaho won't need written approval to kill gray wolves harassing livestock, while Wyoming is suing the federal government to get its wolf management plan approved. From about 30 wolves introduced 10 years ago, 825 or more now live in the three states.
Florida wildlife officials this week reported a record number of sightings of threatened black bears in 2004 because of sprawling development and busier roads. The state is studying the bear population and could lift its protected status this year.
Meanwhile, New Jersey's second annual bear hunt was called off this year amid a dispute over the state's management plan. The state has more than 3,000 bears, up from fewer than 100 in the 1970s.
Deer perfect example
Hunting groups once feared the disappearance of white-tailed deer, but management encouraging reproduction worked too well. Last fall, the Cleveland suburb of Solon became the latest Ohio community to hire sharpshooters to cull the prolific landscape munchers.
Few too-much-success stories compare with the giant strain of Canada goose, which were nearly extinct in the 1960s because of hunting and lack of their preferred grassland habitat.
The strain's reintroduction in the Midwest coincided with the explosion of office parks and golf courses, and the birds with six-foot wingspans are now considered pests, denuding lawns, fouling picnic spots with green manure and hissing and nipping at golfers. States from North Dakota to Pennsylvania have expanded hunting allowances.
Audubon, which campaigns for saving habitat and conserving wildlife, supports government management programs that are regulated and based on science, Butcher said.
"If it requires continued management to keep the numbers in check, that may be a price that's worth paying to have those animals back," he said.
Wildlife officials should plan better when reintroducing native animals to prevent overpopulation, said Barbara Schmitz, government affairs coordinator of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Animal Protection Institute.
When the problem already exists, she said, there are still alternatives to large-scale killing, which might have the unintended effect of boosting reproduction rates.
"A lot of times, lethal solutions are looked at first," Schmitz said. "It is possible for them to become part of the balance of nature again."

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