River otter rebound

I'll never forget my first and only sighting of a river otter. It occurred more than fifty years ago while my friend Bob and I trapped beaver in the Pocono Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania. Bob and I just finished setting two beaver traps and were about to leave the dam area to search for another location when I noticed an animal loping along the top of the beaver dam. 

“Holy Moley, look at that,” I yelled to Bob, who was putting on his backpack."It’s a huge mink.” 

“No dummy, look again, it’s an otter,” Bob shot back. He was right, of course, but before I could say another word the sleek animal disappeared over the top of the dam never to be seen again.

In Pennsylvania, river otters all but disappeared throughout most of the state and the chance of seeing one in the wild could be calculated as slim to none. Nevertheless, a small but stable population still existed in the region of the Poconos where we trapped, and I actually saw one. It was an extremely rare sighting and the only one in my lifetime.

River otters can still be found here in New York, mainly in the Adirondack and Catskill mountains. In fact, there are enough of them that the DEC allows a generous trapping season that runs from November to April in the Adirondacks and from November to the end of February in the Catskills. Pennsylvania, however, is another matter because otters were gone from most of the state throughout most of the 20th Century.

However, river otters are making a comeback in Pennsylvania due to the efforts of concerned biologists and reintroduction efforts by the Pennsylvania River Otter Reintroduction Project, headed by Thomas Serfass, from 1982-2004. The program successfully reintroduced 153 river otters to eight water systems in the central and western parts of the state and established stable, self-sustaining river otter populations in those areas.

Otter restoration efforts in Pennsylvania and similar efforts in neighboring states resulted in significant range expansion and Pennsylvania’s otter population has been growing for more than 30 years since otter restoration was initiated. Restoration efforts, range expansion of native population, and influx from Ohio, New York and Maryland led to a successful population recovery, and today there is talk of the possibility Pennsylvania instituting a highly regulated otter trapping season in the near future. All states surrounding Pennsylvania currently have an otter trapping season, and with careful planning and continued monitoring Pennsylvania may soon join this group.

Locally, the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers support sustained otter populations and act as travel corridors from which new populations disperse and expand geographically. Water quality is improving, and when it does river otters thrive. Let’s hope this trend continues so that observing an otter in the wild is no longer a once in a lifetime experience. 

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