River otters making comeback in Bay Area

October 15, 2012 8:15:06 PM PDT
River otters had almost completely vanished from the Bay Area but now, they're making a comeback.

Otters are turning up all the way from Sutro Baths in San Francisco to beyond Antioch in the delta. Still, there's a lot we don't know about them and citizen scientists are looking for answers.

Some volunteers recently went looking for otters at Rodeo Lagoon. 7 a.m. in the Marin Headlands is the perfect time for a family swim. "I've seen an otter every time I have been out here," Peter Barto of San Anselmo said. The river otters there need fresh water to survive. They do go in salt water, but don't confuse them with their cousins, sea otters who spend most of their lives in the ocean.

River otters used to live in just about every creek in the Bay Area but they disappeared. "Partially because of hunting and trapping, but also because a lot of our watersheds were in terrible disrepair and there was so much pollution," explained Megan Isadore. State Fish and Game maps of the known otter territory in 1995 show almost no otters in the Bay Area, but years of work to clean our waterways appear to be paying off. The otters are back.

"All the otters we see look really healthy and well-fed," Isadore said. She's a naturalist who helped launch the River Otter Ecology Project. "It turns out there is almost nothing known about their populations or their ranges." Isadore and other volunteers known as "otter spotters" are combing the Bay Area looking for evidence to add to local otter science. They take photos and videos which they post on their website. An interactive map on the site shows the locations of more than 150 otters spotted around the Bay Area in the last year. The Otter Ecology Project also set up motion-activated cameras to catch otters in action when people are not around during the day and at night.

River otters actually spend quite a bit of time on land. They are very social and they like to play a lot, but they are not always good at sharing. One volunteer caught video of an otter stealing a fish from his buddy. A word of caution: As cute as they are, these animals are fierce and have a strong bite so you should not get close to them. Even so, the people who do this kind of otter stalking get hooked.

"I can't help it. They are really cool," UC Berkeley biology researcher Collin Bode said laughingly. Hilary Magg is an otter-keeper at the San Francisco Zoo and Andrea Dougall works with otters at the Oakland Zoo. Even though they get paid to take care of otters in captivity, they still choose to spend their free time searching for wild otters. "This is exactly what I have been wanting to do and exactly what I am interested in, but I did not have the means or ability to do it on my own," Dougall said.

With a small amount of training, anyone can join the team. In addition to looking for actual otters, you search for clues indicating how the animals use their habitat. Otters have big webbed feet that leave distinctive tracks. "If you come closer and look, you can see a perfect little animal trail going up there," Isadore explained. "If you were able to be animal and scoot through this little hole and up the hill, you would find a whole warren of trails like this."

There are probably several different types of animals using that hillside, but the team can figure out whether otters are among them by looking for otter poop. "We found scat!" Magg exclaimed. "Ta-da, you get to pick it up," Isadore told her. The team collects otter poop for genetic analysis. They document where they found it and take photos. They've even got a name for this activity. "Pooparazzi," Bode said.

It's not always glamorous, but it's fun. Volunteers hope their research and the sight of healthy river otters living the good life will encourage people to protect them and their fragile habitat. The River Otter Ecology Project is looking for more otter spotters. Click here to learn more.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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