Last October, on the day before Halloween, I set out on a kayaking trip down the Elkhorn River in search for signs of the North American river otter. I went with Craig Allen, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Natural Resources, his colleagues David Angeler and Dirac Twidwell, and Nathan Bieber, a graduate research assistant in the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.
At the turn of the 20th century, the population of North American river otters was extirpated from Nebraska due to human settlement and trapping for the fur trade. According to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, 65,000 otters were taken for fur in 1800, dropping to 4,500 in 1904, when they disappeared from Nebraska. Otters remained absent in the state until 1986 when the state agency began a reintroduction program that continued until 1991. During this period, a total of 159 otters from Louisiana and Alaska were released into seven locations on Nebraska rivers, including two on the Platte, and left to find one another and reproduce hopefully.
Nathan Bieber started kayaking the rivers of Nebraska in search of these otters last summer and has covered roughly 600 river miles. He will continue to paddle more rivers summer 2015. When we asked Bieber if he thought we might see an otter the day we joined him on the river, he quickly replied with a firm “No.” I guessed that his pessimistic response was because out of all the river miles he paddled, he has still never seen an otter in the flesh.
Even though he has not seen an otter yet, he has seen apparent signs of their presence like tracks and scat.
Throughout the trip we scanned the banks and waters searching for any sort of indication that otters were present. We saw a few scat piles that looked like they could be potentially from otters, but nothing definite. So, unfortunately, Bieber’s pessimism turned out to be accurate.
The Elkhorn River is one of the largest tributaries to the Platte. The stretch of the river we paddled was not very long, only a few miles, and was close to an urban environment. So yes, it was disappointing that we did not see any signs of otters, but was it surprising? No. Otters tend to have nocturnal and secretive natures; therefore it is incredibly difficult to gather information on population status. While disappointed by the lack of otter presence, our spirits were lifted when two beautiful, great blue herons flew right in front of us.
In 2006, Allen, and others from the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit cleared an 18-mile stretch of the Platte River gathering all of the otter scat they could find. The genetic analysis they conducted allowed researchers to differentiate between each otter, providing a more accurate method of counting the population. The results determined that the number of otters in the Big Bend region of the Platte River is the highest ever recorded in North America, about one otter per kilometer. This success and Bieber’s continued scouting are stepping-stones for Nebraska Game and Parks to consider removing river otters from the state threatened and endangered species list.