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Feds propose massive expansion to sea otter habitat 

A new plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service would reverse an almost-20-year-old ban of sea otters in Southern California, and instead allow the state's most famous mammal to freely range all the way to the Mexican border.

In 1987, the federal government created a "no-otter zone" that stretched from the Mexican border to Point Conception, just north of Santa Barbara. The zone was a compromise with fishing and shellfish industries that opposed a government plan to introduce an "experimental population" of otters on one of the Channel Islands.

In the early '90s, 140 otters were moved to San Nicolas Island, a Navy base topped with massive antennas and used for military exercises. But as years past, that number dropped dramatically. Today, there are only about 32 otters living at the island.

Concurrently, the otter population on the coast has been growing, and since the late '80s, many otters have strayed into the forbidden zone. And while the otter is on the endangered species list, "as soon as they cross the line, they're not considered endangered," said Steve Shimek, the executive director of The Otter Project.

In the '90s, biologists removed between 22 and 24 of the wayward otters and replaced them above Point Conception. But in 1998, 152 otters "stormed the zone," said Shimek. "Then they said, 'neener-neener-nee' and move back again. And then they move over the line again," he said.

That same year, a fishing industry group sued Fish and Wildlife, charging that they were not keeping the otters out of the zone. The suit was never resolved, because Fish and Wildlife officials said they would not move otters until the agency determined if it was keeping the no-otter zone - a decision it didn't publicly announce until this week.

After 90 days of public comment, the agency will make a final decision. If it does remove the ban, some otter activists, like Shimek, are a little worried about the mammal's safety - a concern that stems from the few otters that have been shot in years past, presumably by individuals upset by the animal's voracious appetite for shellfish.

"There's a feeling among some that otters are not where they're supposed to be," Shimek said of the otters expanded range. "The reality is, they're exactly where they're supposed to be."

Lois Grunwald, a spokesperson for Fish and Wildlife, said that if the plan is approved, her agency has no plans to change the amount of enforcement activities in Southern California.

"As the need arises, we'll look at our resources to address the problem," she said.

Public hearings on the plan will be held Nov. 1 in Santa Barbara at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and on Nov. 3 in Monterey at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Written comments can also be sent to fw1seaotterseis@fws.gov.

Visit www.fws.gov/pacific/ventura for more information.

-A.H.

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