SD's first otter trapping season a success
Strong coffee in hand and waist-high rubber waders in the bed of his pickup, Mike Kroger will often set out in the early morning hours of the day to meander somewhere along a 3-mile stretch of the Big Sioux River near his home in Dell Rapids.
He’s searching for signs of beaver - web-footed tracks, a cache of twigs or even nearby trees that have been shredded by the rodent’s sharp teeth and claws.
Kroger, 69, is a long-time trapper and has been tracking down the paddle-tailed mammals for years. Between Kroger and his trapper pal, they caught 28 beavers in 2019.
“It’s nature,” Kroger said. “It’s kind of a pioneer thing.”
But last week, Kroger wasn’t looking for beavers. Instead, he was searching for otters.
While once on South Dakota’s threatened species list, river otters have made a successful rebound on the eastern side of South Dakota. So much so that the state’s Department of Game, Fish & Parks delisted them and established the first-ever river otter trapping season.
To keep it conservative, the season was short and sweet. Trapping started on Nov. 1 and was planned to last until the end of the year or until 15 otters were caught, whichever was first.
With 15 otters trapped by Nov. 6 the season ended after just six days.
What’s a river otter?
River otters in South Dakota live in and around sources of open water that are available throughout the year, with most found along the Big Sioux, Minnesota and James rivers. Covered in warm fur, the meat-eating mammals are mostly brown with tan to silvery-white chins and chests.
Otters can weigh anywhere from 7.5 to 35 pounds and have torpedo-shaped bodies, long tails, short legs and webbed feet for swimming. Long whiskers on their stubby faces help the otters locate prey, including fish, frogs and birds.
It’s not uncommon to find otters and beavers in the same area, as river otters will often live inside of beaver dens - even if the beaver is still living there, too.
That makes it a bit easier for beaver trappers like Kroger to locate, lure and trap the otters, despite their secretive nature.
“An otter’ll have a slick spot where it comes out of the water, like a beaver,” Kroger said. “When an otter is on the beach, he drags his belly. The otter track is more or less a webbed foot.”
Increasing otter numbers
According to GFP, the river otter has been on the state’s threatened species list since the late 1970s.
However, South Dakota never really had any “naturally occurring” river otters until the late 1990s, said Silka Kempema, a GFP wildlife biologist. Then, between 1998 and 1999, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe bought 34 river otters from a farm in Louisiana and released them on the Big Sioux River.
Between this one-time reintroduction and recent migrations from surrounding states like Minnesota, Kempema said the river otter population grew in such a way that it met enough criteria to be removed from the threatened species list.
According to the South Dakota river otter management plan, the South Dakota National Heritage Program has received 575 reports of river otters from 1979 through 2019, with the number of reports steadily increasing since the late 1990s.
From 1979 through 1999, the state received reports of just one otter per year. During the last 20 years, that number has averaged almost 30, with the last five years averaging more than 50.
“At least 70% of the individuals were 2 years old or younger,” Kempema said of otters that have been turned into GFP and had their age determined. “That’s a strong indicator that the population is growing.”
As with all trapping, otter season required trappers to have a valid furbearer license and was only open to trappers in certain counties, all of which are on the eastern side of the state.
Trappers were limited to harvesting just one river otter and had to report the catch to GPF within 24 hours. All pelts had to be tagged, and the otter carcass surrendered within five days.
For those less than interested in trapping, river otter sightings should still be reported to GFP. Kempema said photos of otters or their scat can aid in the identification, as otters can easily be confused with beavers.
For more information on the otter trapping season, visit South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks river otter website or call the River Otter Harvest Hotline at 605-353-7185.