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Iowa is the land of corn, hog farms, and … river otters?

A couple of years in the past, a buddy stated he had noticed river otters simply exterior of Fairfield, a small city in southeast Iowa the place I grew up.

This was huge information to me.

For many of my life, I believed Iowa was boring. It’s the land of cornfields and hog farms. One of many state’s solely claims to fame is that it’s dwelling to the world’s largest truck cease (with 900 truck parking spots, 24 personal showers, and an onsite chiropractor and dentist).

And whereas my hometown is one thing of a religious paradise — it’s a hub for disciples of the late Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — Iowa is way from a pure paradise. During the last two centuries, the state has misplaced greater than 99 p.c of its tall-grass prairie and 90 p.c of its wetlands.

But there have been apparently otters. Good, mischievous, painfully cute, hand-holding otters.

I needed to see one.

As a child, I’d catch snakes and frogs however solely dreamed of glimpsing one thing as thrilling as a river otter. I considered them as unique animals you’d see in zoos or on TV.

River otters at Fisher Lake in George Wyth State Park in Black Hawk County, Iowa, in February 2018.
Steven Niewoehner

However my seek for otters was about greater than fulfilling a childhood dream. I needed to know how they had been surviving in Iowa, one of the vital ecologically remodeled locations within the nation. If otters can stay right here, perhaps there’s hope for wildlife within the nation’s numerous different broken landscapes.

So in late Might, after I traveled to Fairfield for a marriage, I tacked on some further time to search for one. It paid off.

How Iowa obtained its otters again

A couple of miles from Fairfield’s city sq., meandering creeks crisscross huge fields of corn and soybeans. That’s the place my buddy stated he had noticed otters and the place my journey started.

It’s exceptional that there are otters in Iowa in any respect.

By the late 1800s, North American river otters — one among 13 species of otters worldwide — had been extinct all through most of state, following a long time of fur trapping and extreme habitat loss. However within the Nineteen Eighties, Iowa wildlife officers noticed a possibility to deliver them again.

On the time, state officers in Kentucky had been trying to replenish on wild turkeys, which Iowa had loads of to commerce. In return, Kentucky officers turned to an otter provider in Louisiana named Lee Roy Sevin, who was promoting the mammals for a couple of hundred {dollars} every. The 2 state struck up a deal: Kentucky would purchase otters from Sevin after which give them to Iowa in change for wild turkeys.

Wildlife officers launch otters at Lake Purple Rock in Iowa in 1985.
Iowa Division of Pure Assets

It was a great deal for Iowa, stated Ron Andrews, a former Iowa state biologist. “It was simpler to show these turkeys into money,” he stated, than to pay for the otters with state funds. “We gave them two turkeys for each otter.”

(Leroy Sevin was fairly a personality. He had been trapping otters since 1957 and retaining lots of at his dwelling alongside a canal within the Mississippi Delta. “He was the otter man,” Pat Schlarbaum, one other former state biologist, advised me. Sevin was among the many solely folks within the nation who knew methods to hold and breed otters, which he’d promote to zoos and state wildlife companies.)

The deal went via, and in 1985, a truck filled with river otters arrived in Iowa. State wildlife officers launched them at a big lake not removed from Des Moines, kicking off what would grow to be a 20-year reintroduction marketing campaign. (The state later purchased otters outright, partly with donations from fur trappers.) In the end, greater than 300 of Sevin’s otters had been launched in streams and wetlands throughout the state, together with a lake about half-hour from Fairfield.

It didn’t take lengthy for them to unfold. Whereas otters had been probably nonetheless uncommon round Fairfield after I was rising up, there have been roughly 4,000 of them in Iowa by the flip of the final century. By 2006, there have been as many as 12,000, and the state opened up a trapping season (the very exercise that drove them towards extinction within the first place).

Now there are probably much more. “All indications are that the otters are doing very nicely in Iowa,” stated Vince Evelsizer, a state biologist who oversees the administration of otters, beavers, and different fur-bearing animals

Vince Evelsizer, a state biologist in Iowa, seems for otter tracks within the mud.
Benji Jones

They’re so plentiful, in reality, that the state wildlife company receives a number of calls a 12 months from farmers who complain that otters have emptied their ponds of fish. “Ponds are like cereal bowls for otters,” Andrews stated.

However to me this meant one factor: I shouldn’t have an issue discovering one.

Otters are sneaky

River otters are most lively round dawn and sundown — the technical time period for that is “crepuscular.”

I name it inconvenient.

Over a number of heat days in late Might, I walked the streams and wetlands close to Fairfield at daybreak and nightfall. Carrying low cost rain boots and a heavy coat of bug spray, I’d wade via fields of tall grass and murky water. There have been snakes in all places.

Every evening I’d come dwelling with plenty of ticks and no otter spottings.

Then I obtained a promising lead. Whereas grabbing espresso at a restaurant on the town, I ran into an previous buddy who’d heard there have been otters at a pair of small lakes on the outskirts of Fairfield. We drove there that night and hopped in a few borrowed kayaks. Extra snakes; no otters.

Bridie Nixon, a doctoral researcher at Iowa State College, seems via binoculars close to Lake Rathbun.
Benji Jones

I wanted to usher in an professional.

One night in early June, I met up with Bridie Nixon, a doctoral pupil at Iowa State College who’s learning river otters, at an enormous lake about an hour and half west of Fairfield. Nixon had beforehand tracked the animals right here as a part of her analysis into how otters transfer throughout the panorama.

We spent the night strolling down windy streams and creeping across the lake’s edge, on the lookout for otter tracks and dust ramps that they use to slip into the water. Otters are famously playful creatures. “If you wish to learn to have enjoyable, simply observe the follow of a river otter,” Andrews later advised me. “They’re nature’s clowns.”

As one other otterless evening wore on, I puzzled aloud: If otters have recovered in such massive numbers, why are they so onerous to seek out?

“They’re interested in human exercise however are positively good sufficient to keep away from us more often than not,” Nixon stated. It doesn’t assist that otters may maintain their breath underwater for as much as eight minutes.

The next evening, I went out with one other skilled: Evelsizer, the state biologist. I met him at an enormous park close to Waterloo when there was nonetheless loads of gentle within the sky. We sat by a big beaver dam because the solar started to set, listening to the refrain of frogs and bugs. It appeared as loud as any jungle (I included a brief recording beneath).

When it was almost darkish, Evelsizer sat up and stuck his binoculars at one thing transferring via the water. A younger beaver.

There was a lot to see on these excursions: that lovable beaver, a water snake snatching a fish, deer — so many deer — grazing within the distance.

A typical water snake tries to swallow a fish in a stream close to Fairfield, Iowa.
Benji Jones

An American bullfrog hiding amongst duckweed in a wetland in Fairfield, Iowa.
Benji Jones

A feminine red-winged blackbird perches on a cattail in a wetland in Fairfield, Iowa.
Benji Jones

A muskrat cleans itself at Lake Sugema in southeast Iowa.
Benji Jones

By sitting nonetheless and paying consideration, you possibly can peer into the each day lives of untamed animals and begin to perceive the advanced ecosystems they inhabit.

The very best half? You are able to do that just about wherever, even in a state that has misplaced most of its pure land. You don’t should journey to some distant place to see nature come alive.

However to be clear, I nonetheless needed to see an otter.

Caught on digicam

When Evelsizer and I lastly ended our search, it was darkish and I used to be exhausted. I made a decision to spend the evening at an inexpensive resort and are available again, alone, at dawn. I set my alarm for 4:30 am.

After I arrived, the park was quiet and chilly, and a skinny layer of mist blanketed the lake. A big household of geese swam by in single file in virtually full silence.

I sat and waited, fixing my gaze on the water’s floor. Half an hour handed.

Then there was a splash and a small otter popped its head out of the water. I held my breath. The otter was lengthy and glossy and barely bigger than a home cat, and it was ripping aside some type of animal — perhaps a fish or a crawdad.

When it climbed onto a lifeless tree jutting out into the water, I snapped the shot beneath.

After days of looking out, I lastly noticed this otter at George Wyth State Park in Waterloo, Iowa.
Benji Jones

For 20 minutes I sat there, caught in a trance. I watched the otter undergo what I believe was its morning routine. Dive. Catch one thing. Eat it. Repeat. Every time it dipped beneath the floor I believed I had misplaced it, however then it will reappear, usually with a cap of algae.

My search was carried out. I had lastly discovered an otter.

The place there are otters, there may be hope

If you happen to spot an otter, there’s a great probability it’ll be consuming. These animals are voracious carnivores and want a gentle provide of fish, frogs, and different critters to maintain their muscly our bodies. So in a method, to see an otter is to see a much wider ecosystem at work.

Are Iowa’s ecosystems working?

In the previous couple of a long time, Iowa has restored hundreds of acres of wetlands and grasslands via initiatives just like the Conservation Reserve Program, which primarily pays farmers to depart a few of their land out of manufacturing. Water high quality within the state could also be enhancing, too.

However Iowa remains to be, by and enormous, a degraded panorama. A lot of my time looking for otters was spent driving down roads that bisected barren fields. From an airplane — the one method some folks see the state — Iowa is a neat, human-made patchwork of monochrome greens and browns with solely the occasional messy clump of bushes.

The identical is true for a lot of the nation. By the Nineteen Eighties, the US had already misplaced greater than half of its wetlands, and far of its grasslands and forests. But even in these remodeled environments, many animals have discovered a technique to survive, together with river otters. They’ve now returned to a minimum of 90 p.c of their historic vary within the nation.

So maybe seeing an otter says much less concerning the high quality of ecosystems and extra concerning the resiliency of wildlife. If you happen to simply give animals a spot to stay and don’t hunt all of them down, they’ll usually do exactly wonderful.

“You at all times consider river otters being in pristine, clear, cool mountain streams,” Andrews, the previous state biologist, stated. “Luckily, they adapt.”

I went out yet another time earlier than leaving Iowa to a lake about half-hour from Fairfield the place otters had been launched. Shock, shock, I didn’t see any there. But it surely was removed from boring. Frogs launched from the mud like missiles as I crept alongside the shore. A muskrat surfaced and began cleansing its fur. Iowa nonetheless is perhaps identified for its corn, for its totally remodeled agricultural panorama. However you will discover pleasant surprises in the event you take the time to look and to hear.



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