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Urban life suits river otters, too

A trio of the mammals showed up in a city stormwater retention pond, offering another opportunity for residents to see urban wildlife.

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Like beavers and other furbearers that were the target of trappers during the late 1700s and into the mid-1800s, otters were mostly gone from North Dakota by the early 1900s. They have rebounded in the eastern part of the state and a limited trapping season opened in 2017. N.D. Game and Fish Department photo
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MOORHEAD — Chris Floberg was walking in the Horizon Shores development in south Moorhead in late August when he spotted a couple of critters floating in a retention pond.

"I thought at first they were loons because they kind of had their heads up, sticking out of the water. Then I took a better look, figured out what they were and went in the house to get my kids," Floberg said. "I told my 11-year-old and 5-year-old, 'Get your shoes on. We're going to see something fun.'"

Turns out the critters weren't loons or anything else you'd expect to see in a stormwater pond four miles from the Red River.

They were river otters and there were three of them — what appeared to be two adults and one juvenile, Floberg said — lollygagging around the pond and occasionally floating on their backs eating what appeared to be small fish.

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"This was something you don't necessarily see every day," Floberg said, adding Horizon Shores residents did see otters in one of the development's retention ponds a few years ago.

It was another case of urban wildlife, the phenomenon of seeing wild animals in the middle of a city. And while Moorhead is hardly Minneapolis or St. Paul with a population of only 44,500, spotting otters in the middle of a housing development is not quite the same as seeing more common species like deer, wild turkeys, foxes or coyotes.

It's cool enough that Floberg posted a couple of videos to Facebook that drew attention from his Moorhead neighbors.

Wandering otters, though, are not entirely rare.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources calls otters "relentless travelers," estimating they may range as far as 25 miles in a week.

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"When they are dispersing, they will go over land for quite a ways in search of new habitat," said Stephanie Tucker, a furbearer biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "It's not all that unusual."

Maybe not, but to get to the housing development from the Red River the otters had to make their way through several urban neighborhoods and cross four busy roads and two sets of railroad tracks.

Not bad for a 4-foot long animal that spends most of its time in or near water.

River otters are plentiful throughout the northern two-thirds of Minnesota, and have been reintroduced in southern parts of the state, even if they are often secretive and not commonly seen. They are much rarer in North Dakota and South Dakota, limited to the easternmost areas of those states.

"They've never been abundant in North Dakota and are mostly limited to the Red River and its tributaries," Tucker said. "As you move west the population diminishes, although we do have some sparse confirmed sightings along the Missouri and Mouse (Souris) rivers."

After otters were nearly eliminated from the Dakotas by the early 1900s because of over-trapping, the state prohibited their harvest after 1920. It took nearly 100 years, but the population rebounded enough that the state reinstituted a severely limited harvest in 2017. Trappers can take a total of 25 otters statewide before the season is shut down.

The story was similar in South Dakota. The otter was removed from the state's threatened species list in 2020 and a statewide harvest of 15 was allowed.

"There's likely not going to be a large population of otters in North Dakota because they don't like prairie rivers like we have," Tucker said. "They prefer riparian habitat that is wooded, which is much more abundant in Minnesota and Canada."

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Otters are very common in much of Minnesota, said Mike Oehler, area supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources based in Fergus Falls.

"I worked in North Dakota years ago and seeing an otter was a big thing," Oehler said. "In this area of Minnesota where I am now (Otter Tail County), there's not a body of water around that, if it has fish in it, doesn't have an otter in it. It's not difficult to see an otter if you spend time on the water."

The DNR estimates there are more than 12,000 river otters in the state. About 2,000 are trapped for their fur each year.

Like beavers and other furbearers, otters were over-trapped into the early 20th century. Their range was greatly reduced by wetlands drainage and water pollution. After being nearly extirpated from the southern part of Minnesota, otters were reintroduced into the southwestern part of the state in the 1980s and have spread throughout the Minnesota River and its tributaries like the Pomme de Terre, Yellow Medicine, Lac qui Parle, Redwood, Cottonwood, and Chippewa rivers.

Otters are carnivores and eat aquatic creatures like fish, clams, muskrats, crayfish and turtles. They'll also occasionally eat land animals like chipmunks, mice and small rabbits.

"They are opportunists and will eat just about anything," Oehler said. "I've heard of them getting into a chicken coop and eating chickens. Whatever they can get their paws on."

In the case of the Moorhead otters, Floberg theorized that perhaps this summer's drought drove the animals from their normal Red River haunts into the city. Whatever the case, their presence was temporary. Floberg said he only saw the otters in Horizon Shores that one day.

"It was cool, but it was a one-day event," he said. "Maybe they'll be back someday."

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River otters live in burrows near water. They are active in winter, using ice holes to surface and breathe. They hunt at night and feed on fish, amphibians, turtles and crayfish. N.D. Game and Fish Department photo

otter2.jpg
River otters live in burrows near water. They are active in winter, using ice holes to surface and breathe. They hunt at night and feed on fish, amphibians, turtles and crayfish. N.D. Game and Fish Department photo

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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