Presenting the Otter Spotter Initiative

Image: Dawn Tanner

Have you seen River Otters or their sign in the watershed? 

What's special about Otters?

River otters are important because they are indicators of water quality and habitat health. Habitat areas that are especially important for otters include wetlands and waterways. We have many wetlands in our watershed. Wetlands in urban areas are often over-taxed, limited in plant diversity, and have a high abundance of invasive species like hybrid cattail, invasive Phragmites (or common reed), and reed canary grass. Invasive species choke wetlands and inhibit natural wetland filtering capacity. Impaired wetlands don’t function as well as they otherwise would in providing important services such as buffering against flooding and removing pollutants.

By learning more about otter activity while restoring priority areas, we discover how these goals overlap. What’s good for wetlands and water resources is also good for otters and humans.  

What do we know now?

One trend that we see is that these Otters travel between nearby lakes, channels, and wetlands in search of food. East Vadnais and Sucker Lakes serve as quality habitat with robust food sources and the presence of open water. We know that Lambert Creek is an impaired waterbody, with recent bio-monitoring showing fair to poor habitat abundant with leeches, aquatic worms, scuds, and gilled snails. As we seek improvements for Lambert Lake and Lambert Creek, we can ask some key questions as we observe how the Otters respond. Are they visiting the site briefly for food, or are there signs of habitation? Are visits getting more frequent or less frequent at a certain time of year? These questions contain unknowns, but that's where you come in!

At VLAWMO, we’ve been monitoring River Otters with remote cameras. Remote cameras help us document family size and visitation frequency at specific latrines. Using the video setting, we record interesting behaviors and get a better idea about what otters are doing when they visit these sites. We see many other species and even interesting interactions between species. We have been using a range of information gathered, including reports from residents, to build a map of otter activity in the watershed. This map can help us identify priority areas for increased conservation efforts and restoration.

How can I help?

Otter activity is fairly easy to find because otters frequently visit latrine sites, which are bathroom spots where the whole family poops. Latrines function as communication posts. They let other otters know who is in the area, help males and females find each other to mate, and communicate about food quality. Otters are also fun to watch at these sites with their silly rolling and playing antics.

You can help us add to the Otter Spotter storymap by reporting any otter activity that you see or their sign. Otter sign consists of scat piles by water and grass balls that they roll up while grooming on these overland pit stops.

Learn more and see otters in action at our Otter Spotter StoryMap

If you've seen River Otters in the watershed, let us know by sending an email to Dawn Tanner at

Video credit: Deb Wallwork, Independent Video Producer

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