Otters thriving in Iowa

RIVER OTTERS are more common than we think. Being a mostly nocturnal animal, seeing one is not likely but possible. They like to eat fish, invertebrates or anything that swims slower than they do. Carp and catfish are the main food items from a river. But as some farm pond owners will attest, otters like to explore and if they find a pond to their liking, will serve themselves to a smorgasbord of fish meals.

This scribe was conducting a wildlife survey last weekend. Wildlife ‘survey’ is my title for being bored inside my house. I donned some warm clothes, grabbed my camera and went hiking in the forest. Since the Iowa River was close by, I inevitably made a zig zag course to see as much as I could in the winter wonderland. I say winter because snow was still on the ground in good quantity earlier this week. Snow left critter tracks as evidence of what passed when I was not there. I did see deer hoof prints of course and some beds where their body heat had melted a nice oval spot of snow down to the leaf litter. Raccoon tracks and wild turkey told of their passing.

The next track was unique. Very few paw prints were imbedded in the snow however a long slender slide mark told me what the animal was. An Otter. By running and pushing itself along on its tummy, long depressions in the snow cover told of its land exploration foray. I followed as much as I could until the slide marks came to the river bank. There an extra long slide mark depression in the snow ended at an open water portion of the Iowa River. If I’m ever lucky enough to see an otter before it sees me, and I can get my long camera lens focused on the animal, I’ll make some images of this illusive critter. As for today’s photo, I and you have to settle for a contributed photo of a museum specimen.

Iowa otters have a good population that is estimated to be growing at about 7 percent per year. Based on age structure and telemetry work by researchers, young otter survival is rated at about 55 percent. Adult male otters survive to the tune of 89 percent, while females rank at 73 percent. The oldest otter age is 11. Even with accidental mortality, the population is very viable and can sustain a limited quota of trapping. This is another example of a successful wildlife conservation program that used science to help re-establish this native animal to Iowa wetlands and rivers.

Regulated trapping of otters in Iowa began in 2006. Quotas were established and when it was met, the season closed. In 2006, 466 were taken. In 2007 it was 416. A gradual increase each year thereafter was the norm. In 2012, the quota of 850 was reached on Nov. 24 at 2 p.m. The value of otter pelts is still high because of its dense lining of soft water proofing under fir. The market sets the prices which are quite good. For the 2011-12 time frame, Iowa otter pelts sold numbered 587. The average price was $50.94 for a total value of $29,901.78. Pelt values depended a lot on quality with low prices of $21.25 per pelt to the high of $93.

Otters have been reported to move as much as 26 miles in one day. Average distances are more in the 6 to 7 mile range. An adult male living along a stretch of any Iowa river can call a 40 50 mile segment their home range. This overlaps with several female home ranges where movement is between 3 and 10 miles depending upon habitat quality and the time of the year. Otters are thriving in Iowa.

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Speaking of critter sightings this past week, here is what I casually found without trekking through one of the Marshall County Conservation Board public lands. Pheasants: Four of them and all were roosters. They were feeding in a last year’s soybean field. My only question is where were they when I attempted to flush one last fall? Next on the list, wild turkeys. They were filtering from the forest into last year’s corn field to find any left over spilled grain. They must be good at it because these hardy survivors will make it through the winter. A red fox was next to be seen. Only this time I witnessed it cross my Albion city street right next to my house. I observed it from my office window as it went south across my neighbor’s yard. And, last week while driving on West Main Street a few miles west of Marshalltown, a road-killed coyote was laying on the roadway. It is not often that a coyote will make a mistake that gets itself killed by a car or truck. But for this one, his zig should have been a zag. Car one, coyote zero. Eagles are common too as these majestic big birds of prey may be sighted just about anywhere. I like Three Bridges County Park as just one of the prime areas to look for them. My last observation to share is what is visiting my bird feeder. It is a female red-winged blackbird. I’ve triple checked it and made photo images that I’ve enlarged to verify it. Since the groundhog has predicted 6 more weeks of winter, or a month and one-half, take your pick, blackbirds and robins are a sign of spring coming our way. Good.

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Coming soon, in fact on Tuesday night of next week, Feb 12, the IZAAK WALTON LEAGUE will host their WILD GAME BANQUET at the Fisher Community Center. Time is 6 p.m. Members and guests are welcome. Bring your own service ware. Drinks will be furnished. A fantastic slide show will the after meal program about Iceland, it birds, people, volcanic landscapes, waterfalls, horses, churches and more.

See you there.

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WHITETAIL UNLIMITED will host their banquet on February 23, 2013 at Marshalltown’s KC Hall. Tickets in advance are required and can be purchased on or before Feb 15th. Call Kyle Hall at 751-9397 to reserve your spots. One can also go on-line to for ticket sales. WTU uses the funds they raise toward Iowa habitat projects in private-public partnerships. Good cause indeed.

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Conservation as a whole has a long uphill battle on its hands. In light of intense pressure on the land and its resources, economic forces are reshaping the land and how it is used. Conservation Reserve Programs (CRP) of the past worked well when land prices were low and rental prices for ag land were also low. Now that those factors have changed in a big way, CRP programs can not compete nearly as well, if at all. Technology advances have allowed farmers to micro-manage inputs to the land on a square foot by foot basis. Production is the bottom line for commodities seemingly in short supply. Every parcel of land is looked at carefully to see if bringing it into production is warranted. There are still good conservation programs that will have to adapt to changing times. Finding some base line of conservation care is first. Defining really risky practices that cause topsoil loss and degrade water quality tops the list. Finding voluntary programs that will encourage landowners to go beyond those basic standards are warranted. Finding solutions will not be easy. The hard work of writing these new concepts into the Farm Bill in Congress will take lots of time and innovative thinking. Conservation must remain a critical component of whatever national policy eventually is implemented. All of the leading national private conservation organizations are well aware of the importance of having input into the process. I for one wish them well.

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.