North American river otter

The North American river otter is being taken off of the threatened species list.

There are several threatened or endangered species present in Northeast and North Central Nebraska.

While some still struggle for survival in the state, others have shown that, with a little human help, they can not only survive, but thrive.

The threatened and endangered species in Northeast and North Central Nebraska are the piping plover, the least tern, the Topeka shiner, the western prairie fringed orchid and the North American river otter.

Of these species, the one most at risk is probably the Topeka shiner, said Melissa Panella, wildlife diversity program manager at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The shiner is a small fish, usually no more than 3 inches long, Panella said.

The primary reason the shiner is endangered is because it depends on a high level of water quality, Panella said. Because of pesticide, fertilizer and animal waste runoff into streams, the shiner has lost much of its habitat.

In fact, there are only two pockets of the shiners left in the state: One near Madison and another in Cherry County, said Thad Huenemann, rivers and streams program manager at the game and parks commission.

The shiner is important because it, like many other small fish, is a food source for other species, Panella said.

Additionally, the fish is a good indicator of high water quality, something which humans also want, she said.

To save the species in Nebraska, the game and parks commission has started to look for streams where the shiner can be reintroduced, Huenemann said.

Two other species that are threatened or endangered are the piping plover and the least tern, both birds that make their nests on sandbars, Panella said.

Like other species, their success depends on the availability of their habitat, which has been shrinking, Panella said.

“A lot of rivers have been altered in one way or another,” said Joel Jorgensen, nongame bird program manager at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The birds make open nests on the ground. With the lack of sandbars, they also have started making nests in sand and gravel mines, Panella said.

Jorgensen said the game and parks commission has been working with sand and gravel mining companies to protect the birds on their property without stopping production.

Ensuring the birds’ survival in Nebraska is crucial, Jorgensen said.

“They’re a part of our biodiversity,” he said. “This has always been a core part of their range.”

The struggle for survival isn’t limited to animal species. Two plants, the western prairie fringed orchid and the small white lady’s slipper also are threatened, Panella said.

Like the other species, the reason these two are threatened is largely because of lack of habitat, said Gerry Steinauer, a botanist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

“A lot of that (the plant’s habitat) has been plowed up,” he said.

Other causes for the species’ decline are loss of pollinators, grazing and herbicides, Steinauer said.

The species are important because they produce oxygen and filter groundwater, Steinauer said.

“They’re like all species – they’re part of a big puzzle,” he said. When pieces of the puzzle are removed, it can cause a chain reaction.

So far, conservation efforts have been limited to preserving the species where they are already present and working with private landowners, Steinauer said.

“We’ve had no major efforts for these species just because it’s hard to get the dollars to preserve native plant species,” he said.

The game and parks commission has discussed reestablishing populations of the plants in areas where they previously lived, Steinauer said.

This could be difficult for the orchid, though, as the species is dependent on certain types of fungi in the soil. Not much is known about these fungi, but if they are not present, the orchid probably won’t survive, Steinauer said.

The success story of Nebraska’s endangered species is the North American river otter.

Although the otter remains on the threatened list, it is being removed from it, Panella said.

The species disappeared from Nebraska in the early 1900s because of unregulated trapping, Panella said.

From the mid-1980s to early 1990s, the species was reintroduced in Nebraska, said Sam Wilson, carnivore program manager at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

During that period, 159 otters were released at seven different sites. Now, they can be found in almost every major river in the state, Wilson said.

“They’ve flourished,” Wilson said. “They’re really statewide now.”

The reason for the otter’s success is that most of its habitat remained and the otters are now protected against trapping, Wilson said.

The otter’s success is as important as it is impressive, Wilson said.

“This is one of those really rare and really huge success stories,” he said. “They’re a native animal. They have an intrinsic value to themselves and the people of Nebraska.”

Nebraskans can help protect and preserve endangered and threatened species by donating to wildlife conservation groups, protecting species living on their property and educating themselves on threatened and endangered species, Panella said.

“I think one of the most important things is to learn about the threatened plants and wildlife in your state,” she said.

Steinauer said it is important to protect threatened species before it is too late.

“Sometime in human history, we’re going to find out we need these species,” he said. “The thing is that these species have a right to exist.”

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