A closer look at river otter populations

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The Lontra canadensis has again been spotted not far from Sioux Falls. That’s the scientific name for the Northern River Otter.

In February of 2020, otters were spotted near the Big Sioux River in eastern South Dakota.

This week, it’s a mom, dad and three pups at an abandoned gravel pit west of Sioux Falls.

The Northern River Otter was removed from the state’s threatened species list in 2020, according to the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks Department. This allows for what the GFP said is a conservative trapping/hunting season for the first time in modern times. The season runs from Nov. 1, 2021 to Dec. 31, 2021 or until the conservative harvest limit of 20 river otters has been reached, whichever comes first.

A water area and a river are a natural choice for the active mammals to live.

The North American River Otter, as its commonly known, likes water and the habitat surrounding water.

They do not hibernate. A thick fur keeps them warm in the cold, even in cold water.

Otters are known for their play.

In video captured this week by KELOLAND News Chief Photographer Kevin Kjergaard, the otters appear to be playing and dancing as they hunt frogs.

Photos and video with KELOLAND’s Don Jorgensen’s story on Feb. 7, 2020, showed a trail in the snow resembling a slide the otters used to get into the river.

River otters. Photo from the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department’s 2012 otter management plan.

“River otters are especially playful, gamboling on land and splashing into rivers and streams,” National Geographic said on its website page dedicated to river otters.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, otters can slide faster than they can run. And they can run as fast as 15 miles per hour.

All that sliding and play is important to social interaction, according to studies on otters.

Studies of otters have described them as curious and intelligent with a tendency to investigate and explore their surroundings and items around them.

Like ducks, otters have webbed feet that help them swim, according to National Geographic. They can also hold their breath under water for up to eight minutes.

Water is also key to reproduction.

The North American River Otter Husbandry Handbook of 2008 said otters mostly copulate in the water. A general litter of otters is two to three pups.

When an otter needs to eat or feed the family, it gets help from its long whiskers. The whiskers detect prey in the water.

The otter will eat aquatic plants, fish, crayfish and other aquatic life but they will also eat other small mammals such as muskrats or rabbits, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

When dining is completed, an otter may poo. That poo smells like jasmine tea, according to the Wildlife Trust.

The otter had been placed on the state’s threatened species list after trapping and loss of habitat reduced its numbers.

The U.S. Forest Service estimated the river otter population in South Dakota at 100 in 2006. The estimate was part of a river otter study conducted by the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

The apparent resurgence appears to be traced, in part, to an effort by the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe. From 1998 to 2000, the Santee Sioux introduced 34 river otters into the Big Sioux River area near Flandreau. Seventeen were released in 1998 and 17 were released in 1999-2000, the GFP’s 2012 Northern River Otter Management Plan.

This map of otter observations from 1979-2011 is from the GFP’s 2012 otter wildlife management plan.

The GFP worked with research teams from South Dakota State University to determine otter numbers and if re-introduction was feasible.

The South Dakota Natural Heritage Program (SDHNP) had been recording otter sightings for a number of years and that data was referred to in the GFP management plan.

From 1979 to 2011, the SDNHP database contained 170 recordings of otters, the GFP 2012 management plan said. Forty-seven percent of the reported river otter observations occurred in the counties of Moody, Roberts and Grant. The high number of sightings in those counties were attributed to the Santee Sioux effort.

This is a chart of otter observations in South Dakota from 1979 to 2011. The chart is from recordings by the South Dakota National Heritage Program and was included in the 2012 South Dakota River Otter Management Plan.

The goal of the 2012 otter wildlife management plan was to “manage river otter populations with scientifically sound data and techniques to encourage occupation of suitable available habitats in South Dakota. River otter populations will be enhanced to justify delisting and to provide sustainable use and enjoyment within the social tolerance level for this species.”

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