The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Sports

June 25, 2011

Otters making a steady comeback

One of the least likely mammals seen in Pennsylvania is the otter. Part of the reason is that they are nocturnal, but they also aren’t as plentiful as they once were.

“River otters are native to Pennsylvania and were always found in the state,” said Tom Hardisky, wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. However, their populations declined so much in the late 1800s that they almost became extinct.

“Poor habitat conditions coupled with unregulated trapping resulted in a significant otter decline, but a small population survived in the Pocono northeast,” he said.

In other locations throughout the state, however, otters were scarce. It was the late 1900’s before they started expanding. As water quality improved, 150 otters were reintroduced into eight stream or river systems during 1982-2004. While it’s difficult to estimate current populations, wildlife conservation officers conduct field surveys.

“In 1995, river otters were present in 49 percent of WCO districts. Today, otters are present in 88 percent of them,” he said. According to Hardisky, river otters have taken up residence in every major river drainage system in the state.

Otters are fascinating mammals because of their playful nature. They are approximately 35 inches long with a foot-long tail and can weigh up to 25 pounds.

Otters can do remarkable feats.

“Otters have stiff whiskers that are very sensitive and are used to navigate and locate food in muddy or turbid water,” he explained.

These animals can also stay submerged in water for four minutes.

“The lung capacity of an otter is much greater than a similar-sized animal living on land.” Hardisky said. “While submerged, its heart rate drops, slowing its blood and oxygen flow.”

Because otters depend on aquatic species for food, it is vitally important that there be clean water.

“They depend on clean water that supports a variety of fish, frogs, turtles, snakes, mussels, crayfish and aquatic plants for their existence,” he said.

Contaminants can quickly kill the life in a waterway; and otters are forced to move on or not survive.

Pups are born naked and helpless. “This underdeveloped start in life requires close maternal care for several months,” he said.

It takes five weeks for their eyes to open, and it will be three or four months until the pups venture out from the protection of the den.

So what is your best opportunity to see an otter in the wild? Hardisky says the large watersheds in northern Pennsylvania are the best locations. Also, lakes and ponds in the Poconos, but also the Allegheny, Susquehanna and Delaware rivers can also offer sightings.

“Otters are active during the morning and evening. Early morning seems to be the best time of day to see an otter during daylight hours,” he said.

Hardisky also says to “Look for them in large, slow-moving pools of water where fish may congregate and where food sources are available.” He also says to watch for scent markings or latrine sites: “Scent markings are made by digging or scratching a small mound and defecating on it.”

Hardisky is very optimistic about their populations.

“As water quality improvements gradually restore river otter habitat in the southern portion of Pennsylvania, we expect otters to occupy all large waterways in the entire state within 10 years,” he said. “It is very important that we continue to improve the quality of our water system to safeguard otter habitat. Many species of wildlife benefit from clean water, especially the river otters.”

n Connie Mertz enjoys all aspects of the outdoors. Contact her at owcam@verizon.net

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