Two weeks ago while I was watching huge chunks of ice pass by and the Des Lacs River quickly rise to flood stage, I saw a fur-bearing animal on the water trying to swim upstream.
I was able to get some pictures of it, but in using an iPhone, you don’t have the option of changing lenses and the optic zoom on the phone is basically useless.
My first impression was that it was an otter. And in the process of putting that and several other pictures of the flooding on Facebook, some of my friends commented that it was a beaver or that it was a muskrat.
The responses are appreciated, but I’ve been gardening along the Des Lacs River since 2004 and I’ve seen plenty of beavers and plenty of muskrats and this animal I saw last Wednesday was neither.
And the more I look at the photograph, the more I’m convinced it’s an otter, an animal I have never seen on the Des Lacs. It looked kind of like a mink or weasel, but was much larger… and had a longer body. A beaver, even the young ones, are fat and have the obvious flat tail. A muskrat bears more resemblance to a beaver than it does an otter.
As a result of the questioning, I took to finding out more information to see if otters exist in northwest North Dakota. Up until I saw that critter swimming on the Des Lacs, I assumed otters were only inhabiting the Red River, as far as North Dakota is concerned.
But here is what I found out. Because of urbanization, river otters are moving to more friendly and secluded confines, meaning places like Fargo, Grand Forks and Hillsboro are not places they want to be. As a result, they seek out tributaries, navigate the smaller rivers and streams until they find a spot suitable for them.
In this case, the entire stretch of the Des Lacs River, which starts in southeastern Saskatchewan to the confluence on the Souris River at Burlington, is reasonable habitat, save for Kenmare, which has a fair amount of traffic, livestock and other activities along the river and Des Lacs Lake.
According to the North Dakota Game & Fish Department, there is no evidence of river otters in the Des Lacs. However, an otter was recently trapped near the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge and officials at the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge believe it’s reasonable that otters would be on the Des Lacs.
According to the Nature Conservency, river otters are located in Saskatchewan, but their habitat is localized in the Qu’Appelle Valley, which is approximately 100 miles to the northeast of the headwaters of the Des Lacs.
So that too is a possibility that otters could have migrated southwest as the Trans Canada Highway, which crosses that valley, becomes too busy for the playful fur bearer to feel comfortable.
I further discovered that otters like crayfish, something found in abundance in the Des Lacs especially during flood events like this April.
I’m sure there are going to be people who will dispute what I saw. It’s kind of like three years ago when I caught a beaver stealing peas off a garden trellis, or when I saw a marten on the river bank sunning itself and looking for prey.
Two years ago a mink hung around my garden all summer, but nobody disputed that.
I took a picture of the burglarizing beaver, but it was the same as the otter. I used an iPhone and although I have proof of it, the photo is really poor and becomes quite pixelated when I blow it up.
We’ve heard about this urbanization before. When I was working in Kenmare, I did an article about the rapid increase in the moose population in western North Dakota. Part of that had to do with a disease in the herd in the Walhalla area, but part of it was because of the urbanization of numerous communities in Saskatchewan, driving them south.
They’re here, just like the marten and maybe I got a rare glimpse of it. That’s part of the reason I like hanging out so much along the Des Lacs River.