A few years ago, a friend said he had spotted river otters just outside of Fairfield, a small town in southeast Iowa where I grew up.
This was big news to me.
For most of my life, I thought Iowa was boring. It’s the land of cornfields and hog farms. One of the state’s only claims to fame is that it’s home to the world’s largest truck stop (with 900 truck parking spots, 24 private showers, and an onsite chiropractor and dentist).
And while my hometown is something of a spiritual paradise — it’s a hub for disciples of the late Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — Iowa is far from a natural paradise. Over the last two centuries, the state has lost more than 99 percent of its tall-grass prairie and 90 percent of its wetlands.
I had to see one.
As a kid, I’d catch snakes and frogs but only dreamed of glimpsing something as exciting as a river otter. I thought of them as exotic animals you’d see in zoos or on TV.
But my search for otters was about more than fulfilling a childhood dream. I wanted to understand how they were surviving in Iowa, one of the most ecologically transformed places in the country. If otters can live here, maybe there’s hope for wildlife in the nation’s countless other damaged landscapes.
So in late May, when I traveled to Fairfield for a wedding, I tacked on some extra time to look for one. It paid off.
How Iowa got its otters back
A few miles from Fairfield’s town square, meandering creeks crisscross vast fields of corn and soybeans. That’s where my friend said he had spotted otters and where my journey began.
It’s remarkable that there are otters in Iowa at all.
By the late 1800s, North American river otters — one of 13 species of otters worldwide — were extinct throughout most of the state, following decades of fur trapping and severe habitat loss. But in the 1980s, Iowa wildlife officials saw an opportunity to bring them back.
At the time, state officials in Kentucky were looking to stock up on wild turkeys, which Iowa had plenty of to trade. In return, Kentucky officials turned to an otter supplier in Louisiana named Lee Roy Sevin, who was selling the mammals for a few hundred dollars each. The two states struck up a deal: Kentucky would buy otters from Sevin and then give them to Iowa in exchange for wild turkeys.
It was a good deal for Iowa, said Ron Andrews, a former Iowa state biologist. “It was easier to turn those turkeys into cash,” he said, than to pay for the otters with state funds. “We gave them two turkeys for every otter.”
(Lee Roy Sevin was quite a character. He had been trapping otters since 1957 and keeping hundreds at his home along a canal in the Mississippi Delta. “He was the otter man,” Pat Schlarbaum, another former state biologist, told me. Sevin was among the only people in the country who knew how to keep and breed otters, which he’d sell to zoos and state wildlife agencies.)
The deal went through, and in 1985, a truck full of river otters arrived in Iowa. State wildlife officials released them at a large lake not far from Des Moines, kicking off what would become a 20-year reintroduction campaign. (The state later bought otters outright, partly with donations from fur trappers.) Ultimately, more than 300 of Sevin’s otters were released in streams and wetlands across the state, including a lake about 30 minutes from Fairfield.
It didn’t take long for them to spread. While otters were likely still rare around Fairfield when I was growing up, there were roughly 4,000 of them in Iowa by the turn of the last century. By 2006, there were as many as 12,000, and the state opened up a trapping season (the very activity that drove them toward extinction in the first place).
Now there are likely even more. “All indications are that the otters are doing very well in Iowa,” said Vince Evelsizer, a state biologist who oversees the management of otters, beavers, and other fur-bearing animals.
They’re so abundant, in fact, that the state wildlife agency receives several calls a year from farmers who complain that otters have emptied their ponds of fish. “Ponds are like cereal bowls for otters,” Andrews said.
But to me this meant one thing: I shouldn’t have a problem finding one.
Otters are sneaky
River otters are most active around sunrise and sunset — the technical term for this is “crepuscular.”
I call it inconvenient.
Over several warm days in late May, I walked the streams and wetlands near Fairfield at dawn and dusk. Wearing cheap rain boots and a heavy coat of bug spray, I’d wade through fields of tall grass and murky water. There were snakes everywhere.
Each night I’d come home with lots of ticks and no otter spottings.
Then I got a promising lead. While grabbing coffee at a cafe in town, I bumped into an old friend who’d heard there were otters at a pair of small lakes on the outskirts of Fairfield. We drove there that evening and hopped in a couple of borrowed kayaks. More snakes; no otters.
I needed to bring in an expert.
One evening in early June, I met up with Bridie Nixon, a doctoral student at Iowa State University who’s studying river otters, at a big lake about an hour and half west of Fairfield. Nixon had previously tracked the animals here as part of her research into how otters move across the landscape.
We spent the evening walking down windy streams and creeping around the lake’s edge, looking for otter tracks and mud ramps that they use to slide into the water. Otters are famously playful creatures. “If you want to learn how to have fun, just follow the practice of a river otter,” Andrews later told me. “They’re nature’s clowns.”
As another otterless night wore on, I wondered aloud: If otters have recovered in such large numbers, why are they so hard to find?
“They’re curious about human activity but are definitely smart enough to avoid us most of the time,” Nixon said. It doesn’t help that otters can also hold their breath underwater for up to eight minutes.
The following night, I went out with another professional: Evelsizer, the state biologist. I met him at a big park near Waterloo when there was still plenty of light in the sky. We sat by a large beaver dam as the sun began to set, listening to the chorus of frogs and insects. It seemed as loud as any jungle (I included a short recording below).
When it was nearly dark, Evelsizer sat up and fixed his binoculars at something moving through the water. A young beaver.
There was so much to see on these excursions: that adorable beaver, a water snake snatching a fish, deer — so many deer — grazing in the distance.
By sitting still and paying attention, you can peer into the daily lives of wild animals and start to understand the complex ecosystems they inhabit.
The best part? You can do that pretty much anywhere, even in a state that has lost most of its natural land. You don’t have to travel to some distant place to see nature come alive.
But, to be clear, I still wanted to see an otter.
Caught on camera
When Evelsizer and I finally ended our search, it was dark and I was exhausted. I decided to spend the night at a cheap hotel and come back, alone, at sunrise. I set my alarm for 4:30 am.
When I arrived, the park was quiet and cold, and a thin layer of mist blanketed the lake. A large family of geese swam by in single file in almost complete silence.
I sat and waited, fixing my gaze on the water’s surface. Half an hour passed.
Then there was a splash and a small otter popped its head out of the water. I held my breath. The otter was long and sleek and slightly larger than a house cat, and it was ripping apart some kind of animal — maybe a fish or a crawdad.
When it climbed onto a dead tree jutting out into the water, I snapped the shot below.
For 20 minutes I sat there, stuck in a trance. I watched the otter go through what I suspect was its morning routine. Dive. Catch something. Eat it. Repeat. Each time it dipped below the surface I thought I had lost it, but then it would reappear, often with a cap of algae.
My search was done. I had finally found an otter.
Where there are otters, there is hope
If you spot an otter, there’s a good chance it’ll be eating. These animals are voracious carnivores and need a steady supply of fish, frogs, and other critters to sustain their muscly bodies. So in a way, to see an otter is to see a much broader ecosystem at work.
Are Iowa’s ecosystems working?
In the last few decades, Iowa has restored thousands of acres of wetlands and grasslands through initiatives like the Conservation Reserve Program, which essentially pays farmers to leave some of their land out of production. Water quality in the state may be improving, too.
But Iowa is still, by and large, a degraded landscape. Much of my time searching for otters was spent driving down roads that bisected barren fields. From an airplane — the only way some people see the state — Iowa is a neat, human-made patchwork of monochrome greens and browns with only the occasional messy clump of trees.
The same is true for much of the country. By the 1980s, the US had already lost more than half of its wetlands, and much of its grasslands and forests. Yet even in these transformed environments, many animals have found a way to survive, including river otters. They’ve now returned to at least 90 percent of their historic range in the country.
So perhaps seeing an otter says less about the quality of ecosystems and more about the resiliency of wildlife. If you just give animals a place to live and don’t hunt them all down, they’ll often do just fine.
“You always think of river otters being in pristine, clear, cool mountain streams,” Andrews, the former state biologist, said. “Fortunately, they adapt.”
I went out one more time before leaving Iowa, to a lake about 30 minutes from Fairfield where otters had been released. Surprise, surprise, I didn’t see any there. But it was far from boring. Frogs launched from the mud like missiles as I crept along the shore. A muskrat surfaced and started cleaning its fur. Iowa still might be known for its corn, for its utterly transformed agricultural landscape. But you can find delightful surprises if you take the time to look and to listen.