This past week, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission approved removing river otters from the threatened and endangered species list in Nebraska.
This removal, once approved by the governor, will be three decades in the making and is one of the best conservation success stories in Nebraska’s history.
The North American river otter weighs 10 to 30 pounds and is 3 to 4 feet long, including its long, strong tail, which helps to propel it through the water. River otters are excellent swimmers and opportunistic carnivores, but their preferred meal is fish.
River otters were densely populated throughout most of the United States until the early 1900s, when habitat alteration of rivers and wetlands paired with unregulated trapping caused the species to largely disappear from its native waters. Otters persisted in areas like Louisiana and Alaska, while in Nebraska they were completely gone from the rivers they inhabited just years before.
In 1986, river otters were listed as an endangered species in Nebraska. This listing action brought with it not only laws to prohibit trapping but it also kick-started a reintroduction program lead by the commission. Over the course of six years, more than 150 river otters were reintroduced to the Platte, Niobrara, South Loup, Elkhorn, Calamus and Cedar rivers.
In 2000, the river otter was moved from "endangered" to "threatened" in Nebraska because of substantial progress toward its recovery, leading to this week's vote to remove the species from the list list because of a full recovery.
How do we know they have recovered? “Lots of research,” said Sam Wilson, the Commission’s furbearer and carnivore program manager.
“Biologists have been surveying for river otters in a combination of ways and actively monitored the establishment, expansion, and progression of the species across Nebraska," Wilson said. "Research efforts included looking for signs of river otter presence from bridges, genetic testing, distribution modelling, as well as tracking river otter movements and survival by implanting transmitters and following them for years.”
Data show that river otter populations are healthy and have expanded beyond their reintroduction sites into most of the major waterways in the state. Genetic testing conducted from collecting feces, or scat, has revealed that the central Platte River has some of the highest densities of river otters in the United States. Survival is high and biologists expect the population to continue to grow. Not only have river otters recovered in our state but they have also recovered in Iowa, Missouri and Kansas.
This is a paramount example of species recovery and could not have been accomplished without the commission and long-term partnerships with private landowners, the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, The Nature Conservancy, the Nebraska Fur Harvesters and other conservation organizations.
Never before has a reintroduced and threatened species been delisted in our state. This is an unprecedented conservation success story, and we should all be proud that the river otter has recovered in Nebraska’s waters.
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Northern river otter
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Greater prairie chicken
Ring-neck pheasant rooster
Sarah Nevison is a wildlife biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission working with the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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