Otters on the Kaw: Kansas Riverkeeper finds evidence of elusive mammal in Douglas County

photo by: Shutterstock

A North American river otter is pictured in this undated photo.

Ever since she became the Kansas Riverkeeper in 2015, Dawn Buehler has been looking for evidence of otters on the Kansas River.

But while traveling the river, kayaking about 700 miles a year, Buehler said she struggled to find anything related to the animal.

Recounting her efforts, Buehler, who is also the executive director of the Friends of the Kaw organization, recently told the Journal-World that she would constantly find tracks of animals on sandbars and the banks of the river. Those would normally be from deer, birds and beavers.

But when she found something that looked like an otter’s tracks, she would message author George Frazier, who wrote “The Last Wild Places of Kansas,” to confirm her suspicion.

“I would say, ‘George, otter tracks?'” Buehler said. “(He would respond), ‘No, Dawn, raccoon.”

But last year, Buehler said she found tracks that she was sure came from an otter.

In September, while she and a crew were inspecting the river for damage caused by summer flooding, Buehler stopped on a sandbar between the communities of St. George and Wamego in Pottawatomie County.

“I got out of my kayak, and the very first thing I saw was what I thought were otter tracks,” she said. “So I sent them to George: ‘Otter tracks? I’m certain George, these have to be otter tracks.’ And he wrote me back and said, ‘You finally found them.'”

A few months later, Buehler found more otter tracks — coincidentally with Frazier joining her this time — along the river in Douglas County. On Dec. 23, she posted on the Friends of the Kaw social media accounts about the discoveries, including a photo of the tracks they found along the river between Lecompton and Lawrence.

“Now I can say, for sure, that I have seen proof that the otter is on the Kansas River,” she said.

photo by: Contributed photo

These otter tracks in sand along the Kansas River between Lecompton and Lawrence were found by Dawn Buehler, the Kansas Riverkeeper and executive director for the Friends of the Kaw organization. Buehler posted this photo to the organization’s social media accounts on Dec. 23, 2019.

As Buehler’s experience shows, spotting otters in Kansas can be difficult. But that does not mean they aren’t out there, said Matt Peek, a wildlife research biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

The type of otter found in Kansas is the North American river otter, according to the department’s website. In the early 1800s, that type of otter was believed to be common along major rivers and streams in the state.

But the mammals were wiped out during the settlement of the state as a result of people over-harvesting their fur and polluting their habitats. In 1904, the last reported otter of that period was trapped near Manhattan, according to the department.

In recent years, however, the otters have been making a comeback. In the 1980s, otters from Idaho and Minnesota were reintroduced into Kansas at the Cottonwood River in Chase County. Additionally, otters began moving into Kansas after Missouri released more than 800 otters into the wild between 1982 and 1992.

Since their reintroduction to Kansas, otters have been spotted a handful of times in the Douglas County area, particularly in the Baker Wetlands, Peek said. According to previous Journal-World reporting, an otter was first spotted in the Baker Wetlands back in 2008.

Peek said otters were thriving in other parts of the state, usually along rivers in southeast Kansas. However, they can be hard to find because they are “fairly nocturnal,” and it’s not in their best interest to be seen by humans, he said.

“They can exist around people relatively unnoticed,” Peek said. “Their status in the state is good. They’ve been increasing here for several decades.”

Although the otters have been thriving elsewhere, Buehler said there had not been evidence of them on the Kansas River.

“We have seen indications of otters on the tributaries of the Kansas River,” Buehler said, including the Wakarusa River. “But the Kansas River is a much bigger river system, and we’ve been looking for signs of them because they really are sensitive to water pollution and habitat loss.”

While the newly discovered evidence of the otters on the river is a victory for conservation efforts, Buehler said it was also a good sign of the water quality of the river, which provides drinking water to many Kansans. The City of Lawrence uses the river and Clinton Lake as its two water sources.

Buehler said several initiatives to improve the river’s water quality — such as better farming practices and better storm water drainage methods in urban areas — have likely contributed to the resurgence in otters.

“When you look and see that we are finding otters on the Kansas River, to me that’s a sign of improvement,” she said. “So it was pretty exciting to know that they are there, that they are surviving and that they are thriving.”

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