SD poised to remove otters from threatened species list

The state Game, Fish, and Parks Commission is expected to propose removing river otters from the state threatened species list as the necessary criteria to be deemed recovered has been met. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

SPEARFISH — The South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Commission is anticipated to proposal the removal of river otters from the state endangered species list at its March meeting.

The state released its most recent review of threatened and endangered species in 2018. At that time, otters were listed as threatened although, “Demonstrably secure, though it may be quite rare in parts of its range, especially at the periphery.”

The greatest river otter habitat, and designated recovery area is in the eastern quarter of the state, although there is a predicted distribution area, based on verified, probable and unverified reports, in the Willow Creek, White River, Medicine Creek, Bad River, and Cheyenne River areas.

Eileen Dowd-Stukel, wildlife diversity coordinator with the GF&P, discussed the recovery criteria.

“There needs to be confirmed reports of reproduction in three of the five (river) basins within the recovery area. And in each basin, we want presence of river otters by verified reports in at least (40)% of the sub-basins,” she said. “We want them distributed well and evidence that they are reproducing – not just one transient male passing through.”

And that criteria has been reached, she said. 

Thanks to reports by GF&P staff, carcasses that are turned in by trappers from incidental catches, reports of tracks and otter slides, road kills, and other sightings by the public, a database has been created.

“Over time we get a better picture of where these occurrences happen and in this case, whether the are helping us reach the delisting criteria,” Dowd-Stukel said.

She said otters are notoriously difficult to survey.

“They are solitary except for some male bachelor groups that hang together, and then of course the female if they have dependent young,” Dowd-Stukel said. “But they are very, very difficult to survey. That is why we didn’t do a population estimate as a criteria for recovery.” 

It is thought that river otters historically occurred throughout the state in appropriate habitats, but 1977 they occupied less than 75% of historical ranges, according to the GF&P report. South Dakota was not included in the occupied range. The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe reintroduced 35 otters in the Big Sioux River in Moody County in 1998 and 1999. This population thrived.

Further studies were conducted on West River watersheds, but, according to the GF&P report, reintroductions were not high on the priority list.

Areas outside the designated recovery area, Dowd-Stukel said, are considered bonus areas.

The report indicated there have been identified sites for reintroduction in the western half of the state, including the Belle Fourche River, but conversely, “A year-round beaver trapping season west of the Missouri River and a focus on non-native trout management in Black Hills streams will impair statewide recovery of river otters.”

According to the report, from 1979 to 2016, 117 otter mortalities were reported. About 73% were killed from incidental catches by beaver trappers, and another 15% were killed by vehicles.

The state distributed information, starting in 2008, to trappers on how to limit incidental otter catches.

Dowd-Stukel said that although otters are known to exist in the Pierre area, the state’s large reservoir system does not provide good otter habitat, which, she said, may preclude natural expansion of the populations. 

“Big lakes with not a lot of structure or cover is not great otter habitat,” she said. 

They need year-round open water with access to fish and crayfish to prey upon.

“Our philosophy on river otters is if they find an area and can live there, then they have told us it is suitable,” she said. 

“It is a great success,” she said of reaching a recovery status. “Our state endangered species law requires our agency to work to restore state endangered and state threatened species. So by protecting the species until we were sure it met the criteria that undoubtedly helped the species recover. This is a success. Any time you can delist a species it is a good thing.”

Assistant Minority leader Steven D. McCleerey, D- Sisseton, is the prime sponsor of House Concurrent Resolution 6014 encourage the GF&P to delist the otter and manage the species as a harvested furbearer.

He could not be reached for immediate comment Friday. 

HCR 6014 passed through the house 66-2. It is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate.

That said, Dowd-Stukel said the GF&P does intend to recommend a limited harvest of otters this year.

What that proposal is exactly has not yet been developed, she said.

“I don’t want it to seem as if we are not entrusted in the public’s interest and concerns about the delisting,” she said. 

She said that the harvest would likely be very limited, perhaps something similar to the bobcat quota East River, which limits the harvest to one animal per hunter or trapper per year.

She said there would be a mandatory check of the animals so the state can gather biological information. 

“We want to monitor the harvest so we make sure we get a balanced harvest,” Dowd-Stukel said. “We see young in the population, so we know that part of the population is increasing. If we were to trap older animals we would be concerned about that.”

Otters are members of the mustelidae family and are related to weasels, badgers, and skunks. They range from 35-50 inches long with a bullet-like body shape with webbed feet that make them agile swimmers. Females can give birth at 2 years of age while males don’t become successful breeders until they are 5.

They live in the wild most typically for 6-7 years although some have lived nearly 20 years.

They breed in the late winter and have delayed implantation meaning a fertilized egg won’t attach to the uterus until a determined time. Two to four babies are born almost a year after conception and area weaned between 2 and 3 months of age. They will stay with their mothers until she gives birth to her next litter. 

The GF&P Commission meets Thursday and Friday in Pierre.

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