Loveland Living Planet Aquarium’s River Otter Conservation Project tracks otters in their local habitatsMar 07, 2023 04:14PM ● By Katherine Weinstein
This photograph of a river otter footprint in the snow was taken near the Provo River where otters are being studied as part of the Living Planet River Otter Conservation Project. (Photo courtesy of Loveland Living Planet Aquarium)
Over 100 years ago, the North American river otter was trapped nearly to extinction in Utah. Today, the
species is making a comeback in the state, but concrete data on their population is lacking. Since 2021,
Loveland Living Planet Aquarium has been working with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
(UDWR) to study these elusive animals.
"There's not a great understanding of what the numbers are," explained Britnee Cheney, project manager of the River Otter survey and keeper trainer at the aquarium. "We need to find out
where they are and how they are doing."
Aquarium staff and volunteers are tracking the location of otters in Utah by setting up trail cameras along rivers to collect video data. In the wild, otters can be difficult to find. So far, five otters have been identified on the Provo River. The aquarium plans to expand the survey to the Weber River, Jordan River and Utah Lake in the coming months.
Cheney explained that studying river otters provides a window into how well a particular aquatic ecosystem is doing overall. "Otters are an indicator species," she said. "They need very specific conditions and resources in order to survive." Plans may then be put in place to address the environmental issues.
The otters being studied in the Provo River were first introduced by UDWR and BYU in 2009 and appear to be thriving and reproducing. "Otters primarily eat fish and crayfish. Their main diet is in the river system so they need clean, fresh water to survive," Cheney said. Polluted water can also ruin their thick coats of oily fur which could lead to the animals freezing in the winter time.
UDWR began re-introducing North American river otters to Utah in the late 1980s. Their efforts have
largely been successful, but the otters continue to face challenges such as loss of habitat, water pollution and danger from motorized vehicles.
Loveland Living Planet Aquarium seeks to raise awareness about Utah's river otters and invites the public to get involved in their conservation. Everyone can help otters and other local aquatic species by taking action to conserve water, such as landscaping with plants that are native to Utah.
Karmel Harper, associate director of marketing and public relations, explained, "A big part of our
mission is conservation. We are actively involved in conservation efforts around the world." She
mentioned the aquarium’s ongoing efforts to rebuild coral reefs and aid sea turtles. "This one is in our
own backyard," she said of the river otter project.
The public can help directly with tracking the number of otters in state waterways by notifying the UDWR of river otter sightings. “If you spot an otter, get a photo or video,” Cheney said. “Beaver, mink and muskrats can be mistaken for otters in the wild.” Pictures and videos may be emailed to UDWR at
Many visitors to the aquarium are introduced to North American river otters when they encounter Oscar, Otis and Oliver in their Discover Utah habitat. Cheney is also the primary trainer for the otter siblings. “They are a very intelligent species,” she said of the otters, each of whom has their own distinctive personality.
The otters spend their days playing, eating, swimming and sleeping in a unique exhibit space that allows them to spend time outdoors. Care is taken to ensure that they have plenty of physical and mental stimulation. They will celebrate their 13th birthday with a specially-prepared “cake” made of frozen fish on March 5.
By giving the public the opportunity to see and interact with animals like the river otters, Loveland Living Planet Aquarium seeks to inspire people to take action to save them. Donations to help cover the costs involved with the Living Planet River Otter Conservation Project may be made at thelivingplanet.com/donate.
Loveland Living Planet Aquarium is located at 12033 Lone Peak Pkwy. in Draper. The phone number is 801-355-3474. Visit thelivingplanet.com for more information.