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Sea otters may be given room to roam in San Luis Obispo County

jmellom@thetribunenews.com

The southern sea otter, plentiful in the waters off San Luis Obispo County, could return to the Southern California coast under a proposal by federal wildlife officials.

They are seeking to end a controversial and unsuccessful program to keep otters out of Southern California waters.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to formally end its sea otter translocation program nearly 20 years after it was abandoned. A study by the agency found that the program was not working and the otter population would be better served by allowing them to expand their range southward, said Ren Lohoefener, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest region.

The southern sea otter is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

About 2,700 of the furry animals live along the Central Coast. The otter population would have to reach 3,090 animals before it could be considered for de-listing.

The translocation program was begun 24 years ago as a way to protect shellfish populations in Southern California. It called for any sea otter that ventured south of Point Conception be trapped and relocated. It also attempted to establish a reserve population at San Nicholas Island.

The program soon ran into problems, however.

A population of 140 otters was relocated to San Nicholas Island. But most of those otters swam back home, leaving only a small population living at the island.

Meanwhile, 24 otters were removed from the Southern California exclusion zone. Some of those otters died in captivity, and the relocation program ended in 1993.

Wildlife advocacy groups are praising the decision. It means that all otters, even those south of Point Conception and at San Nicholas Island, will have the same level of protection as animals in the main part of the species’ range, said marine program manager Jim Curland with Defenders of Wildlife.

The wildlife agency will take public comment for the next 60 days on the proposal before it makes a final decision. Public hearings are scheduled for October in Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.

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