Watershed Wildlife: American River Otter

By James Dilzell
Submitted to the Vail Daily 2/11/2020


Here in Eagle County, there are more than 270 wildlife species that rely on the river. The clean water flowing through our valley supplies them with drinking water, sustains their food sources and supports the riparian zones they often claim as their habitat.

One of those species is Mammalia, Carnivora, Mustelidae, Lontra canadensis. For the rest of us, that Latin denotes the American River Otter – a relatively small and wildly playful animal that calls this valley home.

A successful reintroduction effort, paired with a statewide focus on healthy streams, has resulted in the presence of otters in more than half of Colorado’s counties, including Eagle. Photo: Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Blue River Ranch.

Otters are semi-aquatic, meaning they spend time in the water as well as on the land surrounding the river. They can often be found settling near old beaver dams where the water is well-pooled, and vegetation cover is strong. Riparian zones, which are the areas of land surrounding the river, are instrumental to otters’ survival and well-being, as they provide places to tunnel to the river and also contribute to the health of the river as a whole.

As members of the weasel family, these carnivores search for their favorite fish, settle for a crawdad or even munch on a bird at dawn and dusk. Though it is often believed that otters prefer game fish and thus compete with fly fishermen, they hunt and consume fish of all types.

The otter has a notable and somewhat tragic history here in North America. They used to roam the streams, wetlands and lakes of almost all of the states, but with continued habitat loss and sport hunting their habitat was significantly reduced. Within the state of Colorado, they were deemed as extirpated, or locally extinct, and listed as ‘endangered’ in 1975.  

Colorado Parks and Wildlife began creating a plan for their reintroduction in the 80s to the rivers throughout the state. A little more than 25 years ago, 120 male and female otter were placed into the wild. This project has been considered to be a success, and the American River Otter can be seen in more than 50% of Colorado counties.

Locally, there have been confirmed sightings of otter in many locations along the Colorado River, as well as several spots along the Eagle River. Jon Stavney, the executive director of Northwest Colorado Council of Governments and long-time Eagle resident, has seen them many times here in the county. When asked about his sightings, he said, “I’ve been fortunate enough to see otters on both the Colorado and Eagle Rivers in summer and winter. Whatever I am doing, it immediately becomes a peak experience.”

However, even after reintroduction, seeing otters is considered pretty rare. They are still listed as ‘threatened’ in Colorado, which means without continued effort they could become endangered again in the future. Otters are sentinel species, meaning that they are extremely sensitive to environmental pollution.

Efforts to keep our rivers healthy and flowing not only make the habitat better for us, but also better for our wildlife. If you do see an otter in the wild, you can take an active role in ensuring the success of its species. Colorado Park & Wildlife has an online river otter sighting form that you can quickly fill out to help track this re-introduced species. Keep an eye out for footprints in the snow leading to holes in the ice – those might just be the tracks of an otter, according to Stavney!

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