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Sylvan Beach divided over otter deaths

Sylvan Beach residents say they live in a wildlife-rich area. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Sylvan Beach residents say they live in a wildlife-rich area.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

A string of graceful homes perched above Colvos Passage lines Sylvan Beach on the northwestern edge of Vashon Island. Many of the houses have been owned by the same families for generations, and the community, according to residents, is close-knit.

But the neighborhood has been riven in recent weeks by a homeowner’s decision to have six river otters that were fouling his boat trapped and killed.

Initially, according to neighbors, the trapper he hired had planned to relocate the otter family. But relocation is tricky, it turns out, and thus the trapper shot the animals over the past several days — considered, he said, the most humane way to destroy them.

The issue has touched off a round of e-mails, some of them impassioned, among the residents. It made it all the way to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Virginia, one of the nation’s most high-profile animal rights groups.

Vashon Island Pet Protectors was called, as was T Martino of Wolftown, who visited the site. And according to the trapper, C.G. Hartness, someone in the cover of darkness made it out to the rafts where the traps were set, closing them so that they wouldn’t work. Hartness, who reset the traps, said that if he has to set more traps to remove more otters, he’ll attach a camera to them so that he can catch the person. Interfering with traps is against the law, he said.

“They don’t see the damage and how it’s affecting people,” Hartness said, referring to those who oppose the otter removal. “It’s a toxic situation when you clean up the feces. They worry about the animals, but not the people who get sick and die.”

State wildlife officials, however, say people are rarely sickened by river otters and that simple precautions can protect those who clean up after them. And according to Martino, predators such as river otters actually keep the web of life healthier; they eat the slowest, and thus often the sickest, crabs and fish.

“If he’s concerned about disease, he shouldn’t remove otters,” Martino said of the homeowner. “All small predators help the environment by controlling sick animals. … Unfortunately, our natural world is shrinking, and we don’t know what happens when we take animals like otters out.”

The homeowner, Fiore Pignataro, a Seattle lawyer whose family spends weekends at their shingled beach house, declined to comment Saturday. Pausing from his efforts to pull a rowboat out of the water, he told a reporter to talk to Hartness or a state wildlife official for information about his decision to have the otters destroyed.

Other residents, too, were hesitant to discuss the issue, noting that it’s been hard on the community.

“It’s certainly stirred things up,” said John Dwight, who heads the community’s neighborhood association.

“It’s a gorgeous part of the world,” he added. “We’ve got osprey and eagles and deer. It’s a very natural habitat. … We were all hoping there was a natural way of keeping otters off of decks and boats.”

Gayle Kellner, a teacher at The Harbor School whose family has owned their home on Sylvan Beach for nearly a century, issued a written comment after a reporter contacted her about the situation.

“I think it’s important not to demonize individuals in this matter,” she said, “but to look at our culture and our laws that support the elimination of the wild creatures living in our midst.”

River otters, members of the weasel family that have long been trapped for their pelts, were once in serious decline across the country, and in some regions their populations remain alarmingly low. Advocacy groups such as the River Otter Alliance have been formed to work on their recovery.

In the Puget Sound region, they’re considered elusive but relatively common animals, and trapping them for their pelt is allowed during a five-month hunting season. They’re also beloved animals, found in aquariums and zoos, and those who observe them are often delighted by their playful behavior and snakelike agility.

State law also allows river otters to be trapped and killed if they get under homes, into fish hatcheries or engage in other activities that destroy property — although the state Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Web site encourages people to use non-lethal methods, adding, “Trapping or shooting river otters should be a last resort.”

In the last two years, according to the state, 61 river otters were killed after homeowners or business owners called the state to complain about their intrusions; many others were able to use information provided by the state to get rid of the animals humanely, Sean Carrell, the state’s problem wildlife coordinator, said.

Russell Link, a district wildlife biologist for the state and the author of “Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest,” said it can be hard for a homeowner to keep river otters out of a house once they’ve found their way in — but it can be done. He once had a river otter den up in his crawlspace, he said.

“I was able to exclude it humanely,” Link said. “It was trying and disruptive, but I was able to get the female out of the crawlspace and reunite her with her kits.”

Boats can be a different matter, although a tight-fitting cover usually works, added Chris Anderson, another biologist with the state.

“In my experience, there are folks who have success with that,” he said.

But Carrell, the state’s problem wildlife coordinator, said that he believes Pignataro attempted other means to exclude the animals from his boat. Hartness, the trapper, concurred.

“He tried all sorts of stuff before he called me,” Hartness said.

Hartness, a Port Orchard resident who used to live on Vashon, said he’s frustrated by the situation on Sylvan Beach and by what he sees as a way of life on the Island: “There are so many people with their nose in everybody’s business.”

Pignataro’s boat was badly fouled by the otters, who were entering it frequently, he added. “It’s not feasible to clean your boat for two hours to take it out for 15 minutes,” he said.

But Martino, who’s also licensed by the state to trap wildlife, said she believes it’s almost always a mistake to use lethal measures to remove animals that are causing a problem. Wild animals are a part of our intricate ecosystem, she said, and they, too, “have a right to life.”

“It can be a tough go,” she added. “But we have to figure out how to live with wildlife.”

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