Vol. 37 (2014)
Research Project Human Dimensions

Assessing the Potential of the River Otter to Promote Aquatic Conservation in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: A Unique Approach for Developing a Long-Term Aquatic Flagship

Kelly J. Pearce
University of Maryland
Tom L. Serfass
Frostburg State University
Published January 1, 2014


Charismatic âflagshipâ species are used in many parts of the world to raise public awareness or financial support for conservation, both among local people living in the area and among potential donors living far away. Flagship species can serve as symbols to stimulate conservation awareness and action and have been particularly valuable because of their potential to change citizen behavior, including involvement in conservation and support of fundraising. For a flagship to be successful, however, the target audience and conservation objectives must be established and understood before implementing the concept. Researchers have suggested that a successful flagship should possess traits that endear it to the public, should not be feared or disliked, nor have been used to convey conflicting messages of conservation. Therefore, critical to the flagship approach is understanding attitudes, species preferences, level of wildlife knowledge of people living near and living far away for which support is sought. To determine if the river otter (Lontra canadensis) could be a successful flagship for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), we conducted social science surveys with visitors to Grand Teton National Park who participated in guided-raft trips on the Snake River (n = 768), visitors of Oxbow Bend (n = 254), a popular turn-out for viewing aquatic wildlife, and visitors to Trout Lake in Yellowstone National Park (n = 298). Preliminary results showed that familiarity with the river otters is area dependent (e.g., Trout Lake visitors were more familiar with the species than those visiting Oxbow Bend or rafting the Snake River), river otters are not controversial, but education is needed to better inform the public about river ottersâ occurrence and ecosystem function in GYE.