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SDSU researchers examine resurgence of river otters

Once almost gone from Illinois, river otters are now back in big numbers.
Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources
Once almost gone from South Dakota, river otters are now back in big numbers.

Researchers from South Dakota State University are focusing on answering questions about the recovery of river otters in the state.

These animals have history in South Dakota as native animals found along the riverbanks. But that history is not without moments of scarcity.

South Dakota Game Fish and Parks took River Otters off the state endangered list in 2020. Researchers say this action was directly linked to the actions of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, which placed over 30 otters back into the Big Sioux River in 1990.

For SDSU Graduate Student Jessica Speiser and Professor Amanda Cheeseman Ph.D., the stabilization of the river otter population means an opportunity to research how these animals are different within midwestern grasslands.

“They’re really associated with trees. But, they doing this in South Dakota in grasslands, where trees are pretty few and far between," Cheeseman said. "So that’s what we’re hoping to find out. What are the habitat needs for otters. What are they using in these grassland environments, and how can we improve quality of habitat.”

By partnering with the Bramble Park Zoo in Watertown, Speiser was able to acquire animal scat that when placed in front of their trail cameras, created more moments where wild otters find themselves standing in front of the lens.

Speiser and Cheeseman collected over three million pictures over the course of the first field portion of their study. Now, towards the end of the second field data portion of research, the next steps are to filter the data. Speiser will then develop this research into her graduate thesis.

Zadya Abbott (she/her/hers) is a senior at the University of South Dakota studying Media and Journalism with a minor in Women and Gender Sexuality Studies. She is native to the southeastern corner of South Dakota. Zadya regards the journalism profession as one of noble service meant to objectively provide the public with information of interest.