The Return of the River Otter

Absent from the Finger Lakes region for over 100 years, the river otter, a truly energetic and charismatic animal, is once again swimming in the clear, unpolluted waters of Central New York. Early in November 2000, over 400 people gathered at Finger Lakes Community College’s Muller Conservation Field Station to observe the reintroduction of seven river otter. These seven otter were the last of the 279 that were trapped from the Adirondacks and released into suitable wetlands and rivers in Central and Western New York. The reintroduction, spearheaded by the New York River Otter Project under the leadership of Dennis Money, was unique because of the partnership between a private sector organization interested in enhancing wildlife resources, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Established in 1994, the River Otter Project eagerly accepted the task of raising $300,000 that was needed to capture the otter, provide veterinary care and educate the public about the value of returning otter to our region.

History
Well over 100 years ago the river otter (Lontra canadensis) was one of the most widespread fur bearers on the continent and, along with the beaver, was pursued by early trappers for its valuable pelt. In the Finger Lakes Region, the otter inhabited nearly all watersheds. However, during the mid-1800s, otter began to decline throughout the state.  Deforestation, polluted water, unregulated and relentless trapping, and, to some degree, undeserved prejudice were responsible for eliminating otter from the Finger Lakes, and making them uncommon in both the Adirondacks and Catskills by the early 1900s. Recognizing their potential demise, New York State completely protected otter from 1936 to 1945. Because of its protected status, otter populations experienced regional increases after 1945, which resulted in the DEC establishing annual trapping seasons in portions of New York. However, in Central and Western New York, they remain protected.

More recently, otter have become relatively common in both the Adirondacks and southern Catskills. DEC wildlife biologists concluded that with sufficient stock in the Adirondacks and with improved water quality and forest habitats, it was feasible to reintroduce otter into the Finger Lakes Region.

Otter Return to the Finger Lakes
After considerable study and public hearings revealed that the people of this region wanted to see the river otter return, the first of 16 reintroduction projects occurred on October 5, 1995, in the heart of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex. That day, DEC Wildlife Biologist Bruce Penrod and Dennis Money, with volunteers from the Otter Project, released 20 otter.

Six years later at FLCC’s Muller Field Station, the final seven otter of the project were released. The Muller Field Station, adjacent to a unique 1,000-acre wetland at the south end of Honeoye Lake, was donated to FLCC’s Environmental Conservation Department by Florence Muller. The area will serve as an outdoor laboratory and classroom for students majoring in conservation.  Observing and studying the released otter at Muller was the first of what surely will be many “hands-on” fish and wildlife management experiences for students and staff in FLCC’s Conservation Department.

Otterly Fantastic
When FLCC Conservation Professor Anne Terninko, an active member of the River Otter Project, suggested to the DEC that river otter might be released in the Honeoye Wetland Complex, the college’s conservation staff was confident that they could raise the necessary funds to support the release. They were also confident that the Muller wetlands with its three-mile-long feeder canal flowing into Honeoye Lake would provide ideal habitat for river otter. The DEC agreed. With the help of students and staff, $6,000 was raised to trap the otter, pay for medical treatment, and have the veterinarian at the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester surgically implant radio transmitters in four of the otter so their movements and activities could be studied.

As the newly appointed director of the Muller Field Station, I have many pleasurable responsibilities, including monitoring and photographing the otter. No experience in my 34 years of teaching conservation at FLCC has provided me with a greater sense of fascination and discovery than my studies of the river otter. All that I had read about their energy, charisma, playfulness, and curiosity was repeatedly confirmed by my observations during the past year.

Natural History and Observations of the River Otter
Four female and three male otter were released at Muller. Otter weigh between 15-30 pounds and have streamlined bodies with broad, flattened heads. Their tails are long, thick and gradually taper at the point. Generally dark brown to black on their backs and paler underneath, otter have silvery-gray throats and distinctive white whiskers. The most aquatic member of the weasel family, they have webbed feet and small eyes and ears that are valved to keep the water out when underwater. In water, otter propel themselves like torpedoes and move with amazing grace and power.

On numerous occasions after the release, I observed otter diving gracefully under water without making a splash. On one such occasion after an otter submerged, I followed its air bubbles for nearly two minutes before it surfaced.  Somewhat surprised that I was still around, it looked at me with a curious and penetrating stare, made a brief nasal sound, and then dove silently under water again into the security of a nearby abandoned beaver lodge.

Otter run with a loping gait. When there is snow or ice, they can’t resist sliding down the slope of a beaver lodge behaving like young children enjoying the benefits of a winter storm. I have seen signs of, and twice observed, otter getting a running start, leaping forward with their forelegs folded closely underneath their bodies and sliding through the ice and snow. Observing them with binoculars, I couldn’t help but be a little anthropomorphic; it appeared to me they were smiling.

Determining if the otter were finding sufficient prey was one of our priorities after the release. FLCC’s fisheries classes had done some preliminary inventories and, to no one’s surprise, our netting and electro-fishing surveys revealed an abundance of preferred otter food. Our question was quickly answered when two otter were observed eating a yellow perch and a crayfish within hours after they were set free. After one winter of observations and analysis of their scat, it was confirmed that perch, bluegill, bullhead, carp, suckers, shiners, mud minnows, crayfish, bullfrogs and mice were their common food sources.

All of the 279 otter released in the project had titanium chips implanted in their bodies for generic identification purposes. Four of the seven Muller otter were also implanted with transmitters that emit specific signals. Initially concerned that the otter would leave the area, we were pleasantly surprised to find that all seven otter remained in the Honeoye Lake watershed for several months. We were able to confirm this by sighting three otter traveling together that did not produce a transmitter signal. Shortly after and a considerable distance away, we picked up the distinctive signals from the other four otter.

Although we were aware from previous research that otter have a sizeable home range and travel long distances during the twilight hours, we were nonetheless intrigued by how far they traveled in a 24-hour period.  One early spring day, our telemetry equipment located a male otter nearly three miles into Honeoye Lake. The very next day, the same otter was confirmed by telemetry deep into the wetland and nearly six miles south of its previous day’s location. The “frequent flyer award” goes to one of the otter released at Letchworth State Park.  In a short period of time, it traveled 40 miles over land to High Tor Swamp at the south end of Canandaigua Lake.

During their first winter, the otter appeared to be using several abandoned beaver lodges as home sites. In one instance, however, my nature photography students and I observed an otter apparently enter an active beaver lodge. Within seconds a beaver emerged, followed by the otter. After a minute of swimming together, they both re-entered the lodge (if their air bubble trail was not misleading) and remained inside until we left.

That first winter the otter were active throughout the canal. They would make 7- or 8-inch-wide air holes in the ice, pop through them, and consume their catch on the surface. One morning while cross-country skiing, I heard a “thumping” sound coming from the canal, now covered by nearly an inch of ice. Two or three “thuds” later, an otter, which evidently had been banging its head to make a hole, broke through the ice.  It vigorously shook its head as if to say, “Man, that hurt!”

Late that winter and throughout the summer, several of the otter seemed to prefer the lake rather than the wetlands as their home base. In February, ice fishermen reported otter coming up through ice fishing holes to feed on perch and bait left on the ice. Lake residents observed otter on docks, and fishermen in a rowboat reported that three otter followed them, apparently looking for a free meal. Unfortunately for the otter, the guys weren’t very good fishermen.

Regrettably, the largest Muller otter with a transmitter traveled out of the wetland complex toward Naples. Last spring it was found dead in Naples Creek and the DEC was unable to determine the cause of its death.

Future
The goal of the River Otter Project was to reintroduce otter with the hope that they would find suitable habitats in which to breed and eventually establish a sustainable population.

Otter usually mate in the spring and have an eight- to 10-month gestation period.  After fertilization, the implantation of their eggs in the uterine wall can be delayed for a period of time.  This enables them, regardless when they mate, to bear their young the following spring when food is plentiful and conditions for development of the pups are more favorable. At birth, pups are fully furred, but blind. Their eyes won’t open for five weeks and, surprisingly, they are not introduced to water until they are 2 to 3 months old. Even at that age, the female otter has to coax her young into the water.

According to Wildlife Biologist Bruce Penrod, approximately 90 percent of the otter released through the project are still afield. Car accidents have been the top cause of mortality to date. However, sightings of otter pups provide early indication of the success of the project. Reproduction was first confirmed with a photo of pups from the Black Creek release site and, again, when two young otter near the Whitney Point release site were found dead and did not have a titanium identification chip.

Although the outcome of the river otter reintroduction will not be known for years, all indications currently point to another wildlife reintroduction success story. Both Penrod and FLCC’s Terninko agree that, to this point, the project has been quite successful. The fact that so many otter have remained in the habitats where they were released, or have taken up residence in nearby suitable habitats, and the encouraging reports of natural reproduction are but two reasons to believe that otter have a bright future in the Finger Lakes Region.
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What to look for:
River otter leave a variety of “signs” behind that indicate their presence. Since these animals are rare and elusive in the Finger Lakes, finding these markings is easier than actually spotting an otter. Here is what you can find.

TRACKS. River otter and all members of the weasel family have five toes on the front and rear feet. Dogs and cats normally have only four toes per foot, while rodents have five toes per rear foot and four toes on each front foot. Typically found near water, search for otter tracks in mud and snow. Front tracks are between 3 and 4 inches across, while hind tracks are a bit larger. Otter have webbed feet to aid in swimming but the webbing is not always noticeable in their tracks.

SLIDES. Also called slips, these marks are even more obvious than tracks. Otter will slide along the snow on their sleek bellies and create 8-inch-wide swaths that can run for 20 feet or more. Watch for this sign on the surface of frozen lakes and any bank that provides even a slight decline. This behavior is one reason river otter are called “playful.”

SCAT. Any naturalist worth his or her salt won’t shy away at the sight of an animal’s droppings. Otter can produce distinctive droppings that contain large amounts of fish scales and bones, crayfish shells and even rodent hairs. Another common scat occurs when otters dine primarily on frogs. The result is a formless, slimy mass that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Otter will often defecate in the same area over and over again. These places are called toilets by biologists. Researchers in Letchworth State Park analyzing otter scat found that the animals there ate more slow-moving fish than faster game fish.

ROLL.  River otter will often select favorite sites to roll in. The result is an area of matted vegetation that can be over 6 feet wide. These rolls or rolling places often have a musky odor due to scent posts left by
the users.

DEN SITES. Otter do not create distinctive den sites, but rather use beaver lodges, muskrat bank holes or natural features such as hollow logs or root masses. These sites should be investigated for the signs mentioned above.

Finding otter sign is often the first step towards finding the critters themselves. Slow down and become aware of the stories that are written on the land and snow for those who know how to read.
— John Van Neil
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Who’s Who of the Wetlands:
SPLASH! A furry brown torpedo just flashed past your canoe and disappeared into the water. Was it the elusive otter? Several other mammals share the same haunts as river otter. Here are some tips to tell these furbearers apart.

MINK. Mink and otter are both members of the weasel family and share many similar characteristics. They are both long of body and tail. Both are at home in the water and out. Both are active day or night. The key difference is size. Mink are smaller than a house cat, averaging about 2 feet long with another 7 inches of tail trailing behind. Even a small adult otter will be twice that size. Mink hardly ever reach a weight of 4 pounds, while otter tip the scales at 15 to 30 pounds. The tracks of a mink are about the size of a quarter. Finally, mink often have some white coloration to the chin or undersides, while otters almost never do.

BEAVER. As the largest rodent in North America, beaver certainly rival an otter in size. In addition, both animals have luxuriously thick fur. But the similarities end there. The tail of a beaver is unmistakable: flat and hairless. When startled, beaver will often slap the surface of the water with their broad tail to sound the alarm. The tracks left by the front feet of beaver have only four toes (compared to five on an otter) and the hind feet show a long heel that is not present in otter.

MUSKRAT. Muskrats are much smaller than otter and do not share similarities in body shape either. But muskrats are by far the most common of the animals listed here and can be encountered frequently. Watch for the long skinny hairless tail that helps give the muskrat its name. The tail is visible when the animal dives, but may also be seen as the muskrat swims along the surface. Even if the tail is not visible, the very small head of the muskrat is easily distinguished from the large broad head of the otter.

Even if you don’t spot the Finger Lakes’ newest mammal, a sighting of any one of the animals listed above can provide some lasting memories.
— John Van Neil


photographs and story by Bill Banaszewski, Professor Environmental Conservation Department Finger Lakes Community College
Bill Banaszewski is the owner of Finger Lakes Images, where he specializes in outdoor photography. He lives on Keuka Lake with his wife Michele.
John Van Neil is a professor in the Enviromental Conservation department at Finger Lakes Community College. He teaches wildlife and ornithology courses.