SALT LAKE CITY — You otter know you can help wildlife officials in Utah keep tabs on the local aquatic mammals.
In order to better study the northern river otter in Utah, the state's Division of Wildlife Resources is asking you to report to them when you see an otter.
Trying to track the Utah river otter
According to a news release from DWR officials, the furry, four-legged swimmers, while native to the state, tend to be low in numbers here.
"Unregulated trapping by early settlers — which resulted in overharvesting — as well as changes to their habitat due to increased development caused otter populations to decline," DWR officials wrote.
The Utah State Fish and Game Commission, which later gave way to the Utah Wildlife Board, declared the otter a "rare species" in Utah back in 1899. At that point, state lawmakers protected them from hunting and harvesting, a law that remains on the books today.
State wildlife officials started working to boost river otter populations in Utah in 1989, relocating 67 otters to the state, mostly from Alaska. They released the animals along eastern Utah's Green River between 1989 and 1992. Then, in the 2000s, state officials released more river otters, in the Strawberry, Escalante and Provo Rivers.
However, it's been tough for state officials to track their numbers.
"Due to their secretive nature, wide ranges, and low densities, otter populations are difficult to monitor and there is not a population estimate, currently," the release stated.
Why otters matter
Scientists keep tabs on otter populations in states like Utah because it can help them determine the health of the larger river ecosystem.
"River otters are important because they are an indicator of how healthy the aquatic environment is around Utah," said Kim Hersey, non-game mammals coordinator for Utah DWR, in the release. "They have a low tolerance for polluted water and require an abundant prey population."
River otters mostly eat fish, but can also feed on other small mammals and birds. They can also eat crayfish and insects, according to the release. As you may imagine, rivers and other bodies of water tend to provide otters with their preferred habitat.
Knowing where they are located around the state is vital to helping us manage this species. Anglers and other river recreationists are on the water a lot and can help us understand the distribution of otters throughout the state by reporting any sightings.
– Kim Hersey
In order to make future plans for the river otter in Utah, Hersey said, state officials need good data. That information can help them gather more information and even decide where to introduce the animals in the future.
What to do if you see an otter in Utah
Wildlife officials ask anyone who spots a river otter to email a photo or a video of the animal, or other signs of its presence, such as scat or tracks, to email@example.com. The email should include the specific location of the sighting.
Hersey said otters can commonly be confused with other small mammals that live in the state, such as beavers, minks and muskrats. She provided the following characteristics as markers that distinguish river otters from beavers and muskrats. River otters tend to be:
- Longer and leaner than beavers or muskrats
- More agile than beavers or muskrats
- Faster swimmers than their counterparts
- River otters also have furry tails that are described as long and round.
Minks, like otters, are members of the weasel family. However, minks tend to be much smaller than the otter. A typical mink compares in size to a domestic ferret and has a pointy face; the average river otter can weigh around 20 pounds and has a rounded nose.