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Otters on the rise

This otter was seen at the NYSDEC eagle viewing blind at Mongaup Falls near Forestburgh, NY as it walked on the ice after exiting open water. Waterways in the Mongaup Valley offer prime habitat for otters.
TRR photos by Scott Rando

January 22, 2014

As people are riding up and down New York State Route 97 to look for eagles or check out the ever changing ice conditions, other sights are there to see, too. A close look at the water might reveal a dark brown mammal, one to two feet long with a square looking snout and a long muscular tail. It may be in the water, on the ice, or along the river bank. This sleek looking critter would be the North American river otter (Lontra canadensis). This aquatic mammal, although very elusive, is spotted frequently along area waterways, but this was not always the case.

As with many other species, the river otter suffered population declines from factors such as habitat loss, water pollution and unregulated trapping. Otters had disappeared from large areas of Pennsylvania (PA) and New York State (NYS), with small pockets of otter habitat in northeastern PA and eastern NY. By 1982, there was a population in PA estimated at about 300 otters statewide. In the same year, Dr. Tom Serfass, then a graduate student, initiated a reintroduction effort where otters were trapped in areas of viable otter populations and then relocated to areas of PA that had experienced extirpation of otters; over 100 otters were relocated. NYS launched a similar program in the early 1990s to reintroduce river otters to the western part of the state. Due to these efforts, otters have made a significant comeback in both states.

During April 2013, the PA Game Commission released a draft 10-year river otter management plan, which can be found on their website at One part of the plan raises the possibility of reinstating a trapping season for river otters. Trapping season for otters in PA has been closed since 1952. As outlined in the plan, trapping seasons would be based on a region’s (Wildlife Management Unit) otter population density and habitat capacity.

The river isn’t the only place to see river otters. They are present at most lakes in the region anywhere near open water. The ice and snow make them easier to spot when out of the water. Aside from foraging for fish and mussels, they spend a lot of time at play. If you are lucky, you may see two or more individuals as they frolic in the water or slide on their bellies down snowy embankments.