River otters were historically found throughout Minnesota, and their sleek, dense furs were sought for the fur trade in the early 1800s. Otters' popularity as a furbearer, however, led to their demise across much of Minnesota, and by the late 1800s they were extirpated from the entire drainage of the Minnesota River from the South Dakota border to Mankato.
The river otter was uncommon for so long that many Minnesotans may have grown unfamiliar with this amazingly captivating mammal. When I was head of the Department of Natural Resources Nongame Wildlife Program, I led an effort to bring otters back to the parts of the state where they were missing. Along the way I learned that otters are intelligent and playful mammals that have strong social family bonds. They are a charismatic symbol of Minnesota's lakes and rivers—like loons with whiskers!
An Absence of Otters.
The river otter is a large mammal in the weasel family that can weigh up to 30 pounds and exceed 5 feet in length. Otters have long, cylindrical bodies, pointed, muscular tails, and short legs with webbed toes, making them expert swimmers for catching fish, frogs, and crayfish.
I was surprised to learn about the absence of otters in southwestern Minnesota in 1977 when I was asked by DNR Wildlife chief Roger Holmes to prepare a status report on river otters. I had just become supervisor of the DNR's new Nongame Wildlife Program, and I'd also been put in charge of a statewide furbearer program for monitoring the status of species like the river otter, whose furs were internationally marketed and federally regulated.
In my previous post as assistant manager at Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area, I had learned that Lac qui Parle told an impressive history of wildlife restoration successes. Recovery of the Canada goose began in fall 1956 when goose decoys and a record player with goose calls attracted about 125 migrant geese. Wood ducks became a common nesting species, and American white pelicans returned to nest on Marsh Lake in 1967 after an absence of about 90 years in Minnesota. And, of course, white-tailed deer and beaver also became common on the Lac qui Parle WMA lands.
The river otter was not listed as endangered in Minnesota, but Holmes put me in charge of preparing the report to assure the federal government that the otter was being responsibly managed to sustain its populations and prevent it from becoming endangered.
As I prepared the report, I began to wonder whether the otter might be the next species ripe for restoration.
A Plan Emerges.
The historical record clearly showed that river otters once lived in southwest Minnesota. Evadene Swanson, a University of Minnesota wildlife historian, had in her 1940 dissertation, "The Use and Conservation of Minnesota Game, 1850–1900," documented the presence of otters in southwestern Minnesota from the records of fur buyers. She found records of 16 otters taken from the Mankato area in 1860. Faribault, Martin, and Jackson county records showed four otters taken in 1867, and in 1875 a fur buyer purchased six otters at Windom.
In that era otters were not as abundant in the southwest as in northern Minnesota, but trapping pressure was intense because furbearers in general were abundant and there were no closed seasons or bag limits. Otters were often likely incidental catches for trappers targeting beaver, raccoons, and other furbearers until they became extirpated in southwestern Minnesota by about 1880 to 1890.
As I pondered whether it would be feasible to restore otters in southwestern Minnesota, I recalled the words of an outdoorsman named Ben Thoma, who invited me to speak at the Willmar Sportsmans Club when I worked at Lac qui Parle. Ben told me that the motto for the club was "Let's put something back." The phrase embodied the spirit of conservationists to bring back habitats and species that have been lost in the past. That philosophy stuck with me.
I was aware of restoration projects for river otters underway in Colorado and West Virginia. I discussed the feasibility of reintroducing river otters at the Lac qui Parle WMA with Bob Meyer, the DNR wildlife manager at Marshall, and he encouraged me to proceed with a project.
Otters were protected furbearers at the time, with no trapping season in southwestern Minnesota. I realized that if they were restored, some would be trapped, either incidentally or, if a season were established, legally. However, modern day DNR seasons and trapping regulations would prevent the restored otters from becoming threatened in the future.
I proposed that we reintroduce otters to southwestern Minnesota to restore a lost part of our biological diversity in a region that had lost much of its natural heritage through loss of prairies and wetlands over the previous hundred years.
In early 1979 I prepared a plan: From the fall of 1980 through the spring of 1982, we would capture at least 12 otters in northern Minnesota and release them in the Minnesota River corridor, from the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge near Ortonville to the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Refuge near Milan.
Only two "details" remained in order to pull off the plan: otters and money.
As a boy growing up on a family farm in central Iowa, I trapped muskrats, minks, and raccoons along the small creek that flowed through our farm. That experience helped me understand how to partner with trappers to help with this restoration effort. I was already monitoring the status and harvest of otters in Minnesota, with trappers reporting their catch to me. Those trappers became a critical link in restoring otters to the Minnesota River valley.
I suggested paying trappers $150 per otter to capture them for us. However, as supervisor of the Nongame Wildlife Program, my budget was only about $25,000 per year, including my salary. There was no money to pay for the project.
One of my favorite sayings is that "a problem is just an opportunity that needs to be repackaged." I contacted Ben Thoma of the Willmar Sportsmans Club and explained that a donation of $600 would cover the capture and release of four otters. Living up to their motto, they said they would "help put something back." They donated $600 in May of 1979. I contacted Saint Paul Audubon Society officer Becky Peters, and she arranged for another $600. Then I contacted the Minnesota State Archery Association and they donated $600. I had $1,800 to fund the capture and release of 12 otters at Lac qui Parle. A year later I was able to budget $1,380 from the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program to fund the capture and release of an additional 11 otters.
With the funding issue resolved, I needed to recruit trappers to capture otters for release. I sent letters to Minnesota otter trappers who had 10 years or more of experience in catching otters and found 11 willing trappers. They were issued permits to use small foothold traps to target smaller female otters and young otters for an autumn capture. Upon catching an otter, the trappers were to contact their local conservation officer, who would arrange for ground transport or a flight to Montevideo. DNR furbearer biologist Bill Berg also helped transport otters.
There was a reason for capturing the otters in the fall. After they give birth in the spring, female otters mate soon thereafter, but do not give birth again until the following spring—a phenomenon known as delayed implantation. If female otters are captured in fall, the stress of capture and transport would not affect the developing pups.
Most otter restoration projects in other states involved implantation of another sort. Radio transmitters were surgically implanted into otters' abdominal cavities before release so they could be tracked to learn about their dispersal and survival. That was not an option for our project because of the high cost. We also did not use sedatives. After capture, we provided otters with fish, held them overnight, transported them to Montevideo the next day, and released them along the Minnesota River.
I felt this would give the otters the best chance of survival as they adapted to their new home. I had faith that their intelligence and adaptability would help them find that the 40-mile corridor of riverine wildlife habitat from Ortonville to Milan was once again a hospitable environment for them.
Before we began the otter trapping effort in 1980, our project got a premature start in early November when I got a phone call from a DNR wildlife biologist at the Minnesota–Canada border. He said a customs officer had caught a family smuggling a young male otter across the border from their fishing camp on Lake of the Woods. He wanted to know if I could use the otter. I said I could release it at Lac qui Parle as part of our restoration project. My son and I named it Oscar and kept it at our home for a couple of antic-filled days before releasing it at the WMA. (Read the story of "Oscar the Otter" online.)
When Otters Fly.
With that otter and another one just weeks later, river otters began their return to southwestern Minnesota in November 1980 after an absence of roughly 100 years. The first otter to be trapped was captured by Helge Lundmark of Clearbrook, Minnesota. Lundmark then contacted a DNR conservation officer pilot, who flew the otter to Montevideo. There, Lac qui Parle Wildlife Refuge manager Arlin "Andy" Anderson and I were waiting to greet our first arrival.
We took the otter to the sanctuary on Lac qui Parle WMA's Rosemoen Island along with an entourage including a videographer from WCCO-TV, other reporters, and local citizens who were following the project. With the TV camera running, I cautiously opened the crate. The contented otter was sleeping in a thick bed of grass that Helge had provided. The otter raised its sleepy head and then lay down again.
I needed to know the sex of the otter, so I put on some thick chopper mitts. I slowly placed my hands over the otter's chest and grabbed it, pulling the surprised otter from the crate and pinning it to the ground on its back. The animal's tail started spinning around wildly. I yelled, "Andy, the tail, hold down the tail!" As he did this, the otter slipped out of my grasp and bit me on the thumb as I peeked to determine the sex. I exclaimed, "It's a female! It's a biting female!" The otter did not injure my thumb, but it did provide a hilarious touch to the otter release news story on WCCO that evening. The otter was the first of 22 otters that would be released through the spring of 1982.
Lundmark was our champion otter trapper. He caught six otters for us. Several other trappers caught three otters each—Robert Weber of Nashwauk, Ted Olds of Outing, Raymond Johnson of Babbitt, and Wayne Retka of Fort Ripley.
We released 11 otters in the first year of our project at the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Refuge and, with another $1,380 from the Nongame Wildlife Program budget, another 11 at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge the second year.
New Otters Pop Up.
Without radio telemetry to tell us how the otters were surviving and dispersing, we depended on sightings by local citizens. It didn't take long for reports to come in. Our first sighting came from a wide-eyed fisherman who had been spearfishing for northern pike in an ice house at night on Lac qui Parle Lake. He was quietly hunkered over his hole when an otter erupted out of the hole and stood face-to-face with the astonished angler before vanishing back down into the water.
Other sightings came steadily from other locations at Lac qui Parle WMA and Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. Otters are great travelers, especially males. It was apparent they were dispersing along the Minnesota River toward Mankato and traveling up Minnesota River tributaries like the Pomme de Terre, Yellow Medicine, Lac qui Parle, Redwood, Cottonwood, and Chippewa rivers.
In 2000 and 2001 DNR furbearer biologist John Erb and DNR conservation officer pilots Brad Maas and Jerry Engelbrecht conducted aerial surveys for otters in southern Minnesota. The surveys showed how well the otters had spread throughout the region.
Recent assessments of the success of otter restoration have come from Lac qui Parle Wildlife Refuge manager Walt Gessler. In his previous DNR post Gessler traveled throughout southwestern Minnesota from 2011 to 2016, and he believes otters have reoccupied all the potential available habitat throughout the region.
Meanwhile, otters have also been slowly coming back in southeastern Minnesota, dispersing southward from northern Minnesota along the Mississippi River. Also, the Iowa DNR began reintroducing otters in 1985, including 23 otters on the Cedar River about 14 miles south of Austin, Minnesota. Those otters have pioneered into Minnesota northward through the Austin area.
A Collaborative Success.
Our entire low-tech otter restoration effort cost $3,180 in trapping fees. The project was a blend of common sense, firsthand knowledge of trapping techniques, appreciation for the expertise of experienced trappers, and an understanding of otter biology, adaptability, habitats, and reproduction.
The success also resulted from collaborative funding and support by many different groups and people that all cared about restoring otters to our southwestern Minnesota lakes, marshes, and rivers—birdwatchers, trappers, archers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Like Canada geese, wood ducks, and American white pelicans, river otters at the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area became another of Minnesota's wildlife restoration success stories after an absence of roughly 100 years.
If you have the privilege of seeing them frolicking in Minnesota's lakes and rivers, remember the challenge posed by Ben Thoma of the Willmar Sportsmans Club: "Let's put something back!" This does not apply just to otters—it applies to the continuing opportunities for all of us to help preserve and restore our state's biological diversity.