This past November my family and I were taking advantage of the mild weather and exploring the Grand Junction Wildlife Area. We were wading down the shallow muddy edge of the Gunnison River just upstream of the confluence. The kids were hunting for crayfish burrows when I noticed a tell tale slide mark on the sandy bank, as if a small child had slid down it on their bottom. Because I am nosy, I poked my head up through the tamarisk at the top of the bank and found a pile of scat, prominently placed in the sand and full of crayfish shells- definite signs of a river otter. I learned to identify otter scat and tracks when I volunteered to help Colorado Parks and Wildlife with a river otter survey on the Yampa River this past summer. We saw a lot of otter sign as we followed the Yampa through Dinosaur National Monument, which seemed fitting as we were in wild country. But the otter sign I found on the Gunnison was only about 100 yards from Highway 50 behind a furniture store. Forty years ago there were no otters in the Grand Valley, or anywhere else in the state of Colorado. Historically otters had been present in every major river drainage in the state, but their luxurious pelts were even more valuable than those of beaver and otter populations were greatly reduced by the fur trade in the 1800’s. Over-trapping followed by habitat loss and water pollution caused the extirpation of the otter in our state. The last otter was trapped in Colorado in 1906 or 1909 (historical records vary.) But in 1976, Colorado became the first state in the nation to attempt reintroduction of the river otter. Between 1976 and 1991, over 100 river otters, obtained from states with healthy populations, were released in the state and an intensive monitoring program began.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife outlined criteria that must be met in order for river otter populations to be considered healthy, established and “recovered” in the state. The otter monitoring conducted as part of this recovery plan concluded in the summer of 2014, with populations meeting the initial criteria set to be considered recovered. In our area, otter sign (scat or tracks) were found along every 5 km stretch of the Colorado River from Debeque to the Utah state line according to Dan Neubaum, wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Parks and Wildlife staff aren’t the only people involved with the monitoring effort, “public effort to submit sightings has contributed greatly to our knowledge as to where otters are in the Grand Valley. Especially now that many people carry phones with cameras enabling them to take photos and confirm their sightings” says Neubaum. In Colorado, we love our rivers not only for the water they provide, but also for fishing, rafting, hunting and other activities. The return of the playful river otter, a fellow fisherman and recreationalist, is a welcome sign that we are doing a better job than we have in the past of caring for our wildlife and water resources. Keep an eye out for otter, or at least their tracks and scat- it is great to have them back.
This article originally appeared in edited form in the January 18, 2015 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.