'Skinning Party' teaches Iowa college students about bobcats, otters

Hawkeye and Kirkwood Community College students get hands-on experience in wildlife biology

Orlan Love
Published: February 26 2014 | 6:00 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 4:12 am in

WATERLOO – Natural resources students got hands-on experience Wednesday with two of Iowa’s most charismatic wildlife species at the annual “skinning party” at Hawkeye Community College.

Both Hawkeye and Kirkwood Community College students learned how to skin otters and bobcats, along with considerable information about their management and their reclusive lifestyles.

Skinning an otter “was harder than I thought it would be,” said Nick Haight of Cedar Rapids, one of about 15 Kirkwood parks and natural resources students attending the daylong session that also goes by the more formal name of student necropsy day.

Hawkeye student Amanda Scheer of Lowden said skinning an otter was unlike anything she’d ever done before, even though she’d grown up on a farm.

Department of Natural Resources officers gathered the otters and bobcats primarily from illegal hunters and trappers. Proceeds from the sale of hides go into the DNR-managed Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” said Jerry Reisinger, associate professor of parks and natural resources at Kirkwood.

Students gain, he said, because they get hands-on experience in wildlife biology that can’t be duplicated in the classroom.

“They also learn to network with people in their chosen field,” said Hawkeye natural resources professor Terri Rogers, who brought 34 of her students to the session.

The DNR, which had 12 biologists and technicians on hand to provide individual instruction to the students, gets an opportunity to encourage young adults’ interest in wildlife management and help with gathering information on the status of Iowa’s otter and bobcat populations, said DNR wildlife biologist Dave Hoffman.

Information gathered here on age, sex, weight and reproductive success “helps us track how well the populations are doing,” Hoffman said.

Both are doing very well, said DNR furbearer specialist Vince Evelsizer, who provided classroom instruction to the students.

Both otters and bobcats were scarce in Iowa until about 25 years ago. A DNR reintroduction program gave otters a running start, while bobcats slowly rebuilt their population on their own.

Populations of both species expanded so rapidly that the state could introduce an otter trapping season in 2006 and a bobcat season, open to both trappers and hunters, in 2007, Evelsizer said.

The bobcat population is growing at an 8 percent annual rate and the otter population is expanding at a 10 percent annual rate, according to Evelsizer.

Until this year, bobcat and otter harvest seasons were governed by quotas, with the season ending when the quota was reached.

The quotas were ended for the 91-day 2013-2014 season, although individual limits of two otters and one bobcat remained in place.

Iowa trappers this year harvested 1,122 otters, which compares with the previous year’s quota of 850. Trappers and hunters harvested 958 bobcats, which compares with the previous year’s quota of 450.

Despite the increased harvests, Evelsizer said he thinks the populations will continue to grow at rates similar to those in recent years.

Evelsizer said it is important for prospective wildlife managers to learn about the role of trapping in controlling the population growth of wildlife species with few if any predators.

“Otters, for example, eat fish, and they would damage fish populations if allowed to expand unchecked,” he said.

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