River Otters

Are River Otters doing well at the lake?

It’s not always easy to spot river otters, but their population is health at the lake and their reintroduction in the 1980′s was successful.  With this year’s mild winter, it’s been especially hard to view them since they are very mobile and the lack of ice cover on ponds makes it hard to locate specific entrance and exit spots for their activities.  The Red Rock area provides ideal habitat for the semi-aquatic species.  Local conservation officers have reported receiving many calls from private landowners about otters in their private ponds.

According to Pat Schlarbaum, Wildlife Diversity Technician with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), otters have become established on every major waterway in the state.  Their numbers are sustaining limited harvest, so they are with us as renewable resources that few would have predicted 30 years or even 20 years ago.

Otters are members of the Mustelidae family, and they are related to weasels, badgers, minks, skunks, fishers, ferrets, and wolverines.  By the mid-twentieth century, otters were extirpated from large sections of the central and western United States and became rare where they still existed.  In Iowa after about 1890, otters only existed along the Mississippi River. Unregulated trapping and hunting and loss of habitat caused the otters’ demise.  Conflicting agricultural activities and stream pollution eliminated otters from interior rivers of Iowa by 1929.

Like bald eagles and peregrine falcons, river otters sit at the top of their food chain and experience a drop in reproduction rates when pollutants collect in their tissues.  Thanks to provisions of the Clean Water Act, Iowans are now providing a better environment for both humans and wildlife living along watersheds, and otters can once again thrive in Iowa waters.

Otters were introduced to Red Rock(near Runnells) as 16 animals in 1985.  Through a three0way wildlife trade, otters from Louisiana were acquired for Iowa by Kentucky.  Kentucky, in return, received Iowa turkeys.  The otters had transmitters inserted into their body cavity , and 15 of them survived the first year.  They moved in with beavers in their lodges and ate a lot of freshwater drum.  The Red Rock otters survived, so the DNR introduced 60 more of them in 1986 to Otter Creek Marsh (Tama Co.), Springbrook (Guthrie Co.), and Colyn (Lucas Co.) in southern Iowa.  There were a total of 11 release sites around the state from 1985 to 1998.

By 1990, 11 areas had become the home to 222 Louisiana River Otters. The sites included the previously discussed Red Rock Reservoir in 1985, Otter Creek, Boone Forks, and Springbrook in 1986, Peterson and Lake Rathbun in 1987, Sweet Marsh, Waubeek and Morton Mills in 1988, Otranto in 1989 and 1990, and Mason City in 1990.  In 1997, otters were released at Indian Creek Nature Enter in Linn County and at Chichaqua Wildlife Area in Polk County.  In late 1990′s, iowa trappers relocated over 100 otters that had been caught incidentally while pursuing beaver and raccoons.  These animals were released into watershed that had not been stocked to improve otter distribution across the Iowa landscape.

Once the otters acclimated to their new surrounding, their shy and elusive nature became apparent and sightings became less frequent.  Otters are mostly nocturnal, but come out during the day on occasion.  If you are wantng to see them during daylight hours, the best time to try and spot them may be during the morning hours.

Many wildlife professional believe otters would not have flourished in Iowa without the standards set for clean water in the Clean Water Act of 1972.  The presence of otters is an excellent indicator of the improvement in Iowa’s water quality.  Further improvements will enhance the quality of human lives as well.

If you are hoping to spot an otter at Red Rock, try watching for them by the pond near the Moingona Prairie, about a mile south of the dam off County Highway T-15.

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