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'One of the biggest success stories' — How the river otter returned to Nebraska

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For five years starting in the late 1980s, Frank Andelt chauffeured river otters.

Sometimes, he’d drive to Omaha in his Nebraska Game and Parks truck to pick up one or two flying in from Idaho or Alaska or British Columbia. Sometimes, he’d head down to Missouri to meet a truck carrying a couple dozen from Louisiana.

He usually dropped the animals off at the lab, but one night, he took his passengers home. “It was late,” he said. “And it was easier to park them in our garage.”

He established a routine. After a veterinarian checked out the animals, and after Andelt and others attached ear tags, he would load them back up and drive deep into the state.

He’d stop his truck at the South Loup River near Callaway, or along the Platte near Gibbon, the Cedar near Burwell, the Elkhorn near Clearwater.

Crowds would gather. Students would pour out of school buses.

Andelt learned to be extra careful at this point in the otters’ long journey to Nebraska.

“They’re a bundle of energy. They’re a powerful animal. When you open a crate up, you wanted it to be pointing away from you.”

He’d watch the animals disappear into the weeds, woods and water, and then he’d wait. That’s about all he and others at the Game and Parks Commission could do during the five years they spent buying — and bartering for — nearly 160 river otters from across North America, and reintroducing them to Nebraska’s waterways.

Wait. And wonder: Would the river otters survive in their new home? Would they thrive?

The animals used to be plentiful in Nebraska. But early unregulated trapping, hunting and habitat obliteration had wiped them from the state — and much of the Midwest — by the early 20th century.

By the mid-1980s, neighboring states were having some success reintroducing river otters, and Nebraska decided to try it, too.

But they also knew it was a gamble, Andelt said. Nebraska didn’t have any resident river otter experts, because Nebraska didn’t have any resident river otters.

* * *

Joe Jack used to teach life sciences and physical education at Wood River. He used to coach football and cross country.

But the 85-year-old is still trapping.

He’s been running his lines since he was 12, spending most of his sunrises along the river. He catches coyotes and beavers and raccoons — and, more recently, an occasional and inadvertent river otter, maybe one or two each year.

“We have lots of them,” he said. “They’ve been along the Platte for a number of years.”

But he couldn’t sell those pelts. The state deemed river otters an endangered species in 1986, so Jack would release the animals if they were alive, and hand over their carcasses to the Game and Parks Commission if they weren’t.

Still, over time, Jack got to know the otters, their locations and their behavior. And when Sam Wilson, the state's furbearer program manager, was conducting river otter research in the mid-2000s, he leaned on the trapper for help.

Jack knew the private landowners, and he could convince them to allow the research team on their properties. Once there, he also knew where to find the animals.

“He hiked us to a spot and said, ‘If you put your trap there, you will catch an otter,’” Wilson said. “Joe was right, and the research was successful in part because of his expertise.”

But Jack would want something from the state. As he watched the river otter population flourish in the Platte and nearby sand pits, he started lobbying Wilson to let him — and other Nebraskans — trap them legally.

“Yeah, I was after the game commission to put a season on it for years.”

* * *

Between 1986 and 1991, Andelt and others at the commission planted river otters like seeds.

But not before years of discussion and planning — studying what other states were doing, attending conferences, holding public meetings.

They knew the playful and inquisitive animals would be popular with the public. But they also braced for backlash: River otters are pinnacle predators; once released, they’d rise straight to the top of a river’s food chain. And their penchant for fish could pose a threat to anglers and fisheries, including those operated by Game and Parks.

When they decided to move forward, they identified seven reintroduction sites on major Nebraska river systems. They considered an area’s food sources and water quality, and whether a river would serve as an escape route from Nebraska.

They ruled out the Republican River, for example, because it would be too easy for otters to float downstream and into Kansas.

Early on, they were releasing one or two at a time, but they realized there was a risk in that, too, Andelt said: A lonely otter might find little reason to stay put, and could start swimming out of state.

That changed when they found a vendor in Louisiana who had a network of trappers supplying him live river otters.

Andelt and others would send a couple dozen ventilated sheet metal crates — built by a Lincoln heating and air conditioning company — down to Louisiana, and the otter dealer would load his truck and head north to Missouri, the half-way point.

They ended up importing 68 Louisiana otters. But other states and provinces contributed, too. They received 62 from Alaska, 11 from Idaho, nine from British Columbia.

River otters graphic #10083

Nebraska often traded for the animals, Andelt said. “Our turkeys were popular for some places that wanted to try to get them reestablished.”

Based on what worked in other states, Nebraska released roughly 25 animals at each site.

And they took hold. Some of the animals moved up and down the river from their release points. Some scurried overland to search for new river systems. But in the 30 years since the last release, those 159 animals became roughly 2,000, spread out all over the state.

Nebraska can’t trace all of its resident river otters to those original 159. Some swam into the state on their own; animals spotted on the Nemaha and Little Nemaha rivers in the state’s southeast corner, for example, likely migrated upstream from Iowa or Missouri.

And not all of Nebraska’s imports stuck around. One ended up in eastern Missouri — 600 river miles from its release point along the South Loup in Custer County, Andelt said.

“We wondered, ‘What’s the deal? Did he not like where he was released? Was he trying to get home?’”

* * *

Wilson, the state’s furbearer program manager, spent years studying the otter’s return to Nebraska. He can rattle off facts about the animal: They’re a member of the mustelid family, which includes weasels, mink, skunks and badgers.

Adults weigh 15 to 30 pounds and measure 3 to 4 feet. They thrive in the water but can hunt and travel on land. They eat almost anything — fish and crayfish, insects, frogs, birds and smaller animals.

They’re also opportunistic. During his otter research, Wilson watched one swim into a beaver hole. “And then a big beaver came out and slapped his tail on the water and swam around. He’d been kicked out, and he was angry.”

But the river otter expert can still get a thrill from an unexpected sighting. When he took his family to watch Sandhill cranes this spring along the Platte, an otter swimming near them almost stole the show. “That was one of the highlights.”

And that wouldn’t have happened if those who worked at Game and Parks 35 years before that hadn’t gambled on the otters’ reintroduction.

“This is one of the biggest success stories as far as a restoration of a native species,” Wilson said. “It’s a huge success to have this animal expand, succeed and flourish the way it has.”

Last year, the state took the river otter off its list of threatened species. The animals had filled almost all of the state’s suitable habitat, they’d expanded from border to border, their numbers were thriving and their survival rate was high.

“It comes down to a simple question,” Wilson said. “Are these animals likely to succeed over the long run? Yes.”

And earlier this year, Joe Jack got what he wanted — Nebraska’s first regulated river otter trapping season.

The season is limited: It started Nov. 1 and ends Feb. 28 or when 75 animals are taken, whichever comes first. It came with other rules. Trappers had to report a harvested animal within 24 hours, and it had to be tagged by a Game and Parks officer within two business days.

On the first day of November, Jack set a snare on a heavily used crossover path between the river and a sand pit.

And just after sunrise on the second day of November, he found his first legal otter — an 18-pound male, nearly 4 feet end to end. If he’s not the first trapper to catch an otter, he said, he’s at least the first to check his in.

He got an early start on the season for a reason. “There’s a limit to how many can be caught. I didn’t know if everyone was going to try to trap one or not.”

A few years ago, a plush river otter pelt might be worth $100, Jack said. But the market is struggling; now a good pelt could be worth $25 to $50. And his pelt isn’t that good, he said. He paid for his early start; the fur would be thicker later in the winter.

“If I had to do it over, I’d wait longer. The pelt would be better now than when I first caught it.”

But he wasn’t the first to trap early. As of Wednesday, 19 otters had been harvested, Wilson said.

Andelt left the Game and Parks Commission not long after the reintroduction, returning to his family’s farm near Crete.

But the man who personally released many of the otters that would help restore a native more than 30 years later has followed along, pleased with how the seeds he helped plant have grown.

“We didn’t know what the outcome would be,” he said. “But I think it worked out good in the end.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

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