COLUMBUS, Neb. — They’re elusive and rarely seen, but river otters are reclaiming Nebraska’s waterways from border to border.
Like bighorn sheep and mountain lions — two other species making a comeback — North American river otters once were a common part of the Nebraska landscape before they were wiped out by unregulated trapping or hunting in the early 1900s.
A Nebraska Game and Parks Commission reintroduction program starting three decades ago brought 159 otters back to Nebraska.
Now they are on the verge of being taken off the state’s list of threatened species. Estimates indicate there are upward of 5,000 otters now in Nebraska.
“This is what success in wildlife management looks like,’’ said Alicia Hardin, the Game and Parks’ wildlife division administrator. Hardin delivered the good news to agency commissioners meeting Friday in Columbus.
She also said that the agency is preparing to list six other species as threatened in the state. They are the McCown’s longspur, a shortgrass prairie songbird; the timber rattlesnake of far southeastern Nebraska; and four small-bodied fish — the sicklefin chub, western silvery minnow, flathead chub and plains minnow.
The delisting and listing process requires scientific peer review and public hearings across the state. It is expected to take at least 18 months to complete, Hardin said.
Nebraska’s pioneering river otters were live-trapped primarily in Alaska and Louisiana and transported to the state from 1986 to 1991. Release sites were the Platte, Niobrara, South Loup, Elkhorn, Calamus and Cedar Rivers.
Biologists monitoring the critters found that their range has been expanding and their survival is high. They are a protected game species; no hunting or trapping is permitted.
Recent surveys identified the Platte, Elkhorn, central and eastern Niobrara and southern Loup Rivers as core streams for the otters. Evidence of otters outside their reintroduction sites has been found in stretches of the Blue, Nemaha and Republican Rivers across southern Nebraska and in Lodgepole Creek in Deuel County.
Game and Parks listed the species as endangered at reintroduction in 1986. They were down-listed to threatened in 2000 because of substantial progress toward recovery.
River otters have also recovered ranges in Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, where there now are trapping seasons. Research indicates the Nebraska recolonization could include otters from Missouri and Iowa.
Hardin said it is likely that Nebraska’s otter population growth will continue because they have no known significant threats.