PIERRE, S.D. — A South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks official referred to river otters as "secretive" in defending the agency's absence of a population count while calling for raising the animal's harvest limit.

The interim rules committee of the state Legislature ultimately approved allowing 20, not just 15, otters to be taken during the riparian critter's November trapping season, but not after debate from some members concerned about lifting limits on an animal so recently removed from state protection.

Democratic lawmakers, Rep. Ryan Cwach, Yankton, and Sen. Troy Heinert, Mission, also prodded GFP officials on their reasons for easing river otter counts without providing lawmakers or the public with a total count for the otter, which until last year was on the state's Endangered Species List.

"How many river otters does GFP estimate are in South Dakota right now?" Cwach asked

Tom Kirschenmann, director of GFP's wildlife division, said, "Flatly speaking, we do not have a population estimate of river otters in South Dakota," noting that challenges are presented in counting river otters which he described as "very secretive animals."

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According to a GFP report, officials have documented on average 50 otters per year over the last half-a-decade, a dramatic rise from otter sightings between 1979 and 1999, which averaged roughly 1 a year.

Heinert followed up on Cwach's line of questioning.

"Are the river otters causing any damage?"

Kirschenmann noted that while the primary cause for allowing trapping of otters was to provide an "opportunity" for sportsmen and women, particularly along the Big Sioux River, where otters are spotted, some landowners seeking to start stock ponds have reported otters eating their fish.

"So, yes, there are instances where they become concerns or problematic," concluded the GFP official.

The inaugural otter hunting season of 2020 saw trappers take 15 otters within 10 days, the defined trigger point for when the season could open to 20 otters. The new rule does away with any trigger and allows 20 otters outright. A GFP attorney said this would be a clearer road map for trappers.

During opponent testimony on Monday, Aug. 2, Black Hills conservationist Linda Hilding said she objected to new testimony rules at the GFP commission level that allotted only 3 minutes per individual and she also said GFP had yet to release a report suggesting they'd monitored the population of the river otter, as was promised in a species management plan.

"This is the cart before the horse," Hilding said.

Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, however, said he believed GFP's rules package was within its authority and suggested the committee avoid micro-managing the agency, which routinely hears from the public.

"If somebody wants to limit these otter numbers, they're more than welcome to go to Pierre January through March and introduce a bill to do so," Hansen said.

Rep. Kevin Jensen, R-Canton, also countered that river otter were plentiful — he thinks he even spotted one over the weekend on his home along the Big Sioux River. He also defended GFP for lacking a definitive count.

"You'd have to be spending a lot of time on or along the river itself," Jensen said.

The committee voted 4-2 in favor of the rules package, which also will allow increased beaver trapping — year-round — east of the Missouri River. Wilding had objected to this, as well, noting the "goodness of the beaver" as "substantial," but GFP argued "beavers do cause damage," especially to infrastructure and croplands.