Lincoln, Neb. One of wildlife's most playful critters could be coming back to Nebraska's Republican River after a centurylong absence.
The state Game and Parks Commission is considering introducing river otters to parts of the river. It would be the first reintroduction of otters to a region of the state in about 17 years.
Otters, which grow to 3 to 4 feet in length and weigh 15 pounds to 25 pounds, are native to Nebraska and were a common sight to early explorers of the state. But unregulated trapping caused them to mostly disappear by the early 1900s.
State biologists say it's simply time to bring them back to their native Republican River habitat. The river winds through a large chunk of southwest Nebraska and flows into Kansas.
The animals aren't needed to control pests or help fill some ecological gap in the life of the river and its inhabitants, said Richard Nelson, a Game and Parks biologist.
He quoted ecologist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, the famed Wisconsin conservationist who died 1948, when asked why otters were needed along the river: "If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not."
"It's historic otter habitat, and it's our job to restore animals to their historic ranges," Nelson said.
He wants to take at least 20 otters to the area within the next couple years.
Otter reintroduction has proved successful in other states as well, and populations are large enough in some states that otters can be trapped for their fur.
In Iowa, the number of otters has spiked to more than 7,000 after 325 were released in the 1980s and early 1990s. West Virginia started releasing the animals in the mid-1980s, and now they can be found all across the state.
And in North Dakota, biologists didn't have to do anything: Otters appeared on their own, maybe moving in from Minnesota.
Otters have also been released in Nebraska with success.
From 1986 - when otters were designated as an endangered species in Nebraska - until 1991, they were released at seven sites: South Loup River in Custer County; Calamus River above Calamus Reservoir in Loup County; North Platte River above Lake McConaughy; Platte River near Kearney; Cedar River in Wheeler County; Elkhorn River in Antelope County; and the Niobrara River in Sheridan County.
Efforts to reintroduce otters stalled after 1991 when the state lost biologists who had a strong interest in establishing new populations. Nelson said it's unknown how many otters are in the state now.
Nelson said otters have done well in areas where they have been reintroduced, especially above Lake McConaughy. "I think we'll be successful along the Republican, but we won't know until we try," he said.
There have been few complaints from landowners in areas where otters have come back. They like to travel - an otter may range 50 miles a year.
Two otters released in Custer County were once found 600 miles away along the Missouri River in Missouri. But the fish-eating animals don't stray far from rivers.
Drought has dried up portions of the Republican River in recent years, but Nelson said the otters would be released on portions of the river near reservoirs that almost always have water.
They would probably be released at the upper ends of Red Willow, Medicine Creek and Swanson reservoirs.
Their presence near those recreation areas could give visitors a uniquely whimsical wildlife experience. Otters, which belong to the same family as mink and weasels, show a playful side more than most animals. They're known to wrestle and chase each other, toss and dive for clamshells, and occasionally slide down wet banks.
Otters also have unique attributes among mammals. They are the only marine mammals with fur instead of blubber. And they are considered intelligent by some because they are among just a handful of mammals able to use tools, such as rocks to break open shells.