On August 25, my wife and I saw a road-killed otter on Route 45 (between Martinsburg and Shepherdstown) near where it crosses the Opequon Creek.
We decided this was worth a second look and returned later. The animal was just over four feet long from nose to tail tip. Its fur was short, dense, and glossy. It was a dark, rich brown on the back, shading into silvery tan along the sides to nearly white underneath. The foot-long tail was thick at the base, tapering toward the tip. All four feet were webbed. The head was broad and flat with a broad nose pad and wide muzzle. Short and pointed, its ears were just visible through the fur. It was an adult male river otter.
Once common throughout the United States, river otters were heavily trapped during the nineteenth century when tall hats were in style for classy European and American gentlemen. Beaver and otter felt was the standard material for such hats. Otter became the ultimate standard for durability against which all other furs were compared.
After tall hats fell out of fashion in the 1900s, a new threat came to otters. Acid drainage from coal and other mineral mines polluted the waterways, killing aquatic life and destroying the river otter’s food source. By the 1950s, scarcely an otter was to be found except in the most remote mountain streams.
In the mid-1980s, we had begun to clean up our waterways. The native fish returned. State wildlife agencies began an otter reintroduction program. Captured with soft leg-hold traps in areas where otters were plentiful, wild river otters were transported and released into suitable watersheds with good fish populations. Otters started to increase.
Today, river otters hunt for fish and crayfish in the streams of almost every county of Virginia and West Virginia. But they’re secretive and elusive. Unless you’re lucky enough to encounter one swimming in a river, or killed on a highway as we did, it’s hard to tell they’re around.
River otters typically mark their territories with their feces, which are distinctively large and usually contain fish scales or crayfish shells. Such a sign is temporary and usually disappears fast, except for under bridges. This led to the river otter bridge survey technique used by biologists in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to determine the presence of river otters.
Otter bridge-site surveys are typically conducted in January or February. Teams of biologists explore the banks beneath the bridge and along both sides of the watercourse looking for feces, tracks in the mud or snow, and for sites where otters repeatedly slide through mud or snow on steep banks. Such surveys can’t determine how many otters there are, only their presence or absence.
Saving the river otter from near extinction is another wildlife-management success story. Now it’s possible to see a graceful otter gleefully sliding down a riverbank into the water.
— Doug is an artist, writer, and naturalist living near Shepherdstown. He also submitted the art for this piece.