A river otter lounging in the grass for the camera.

A river otter lounging in the grass for the camera. 

Many people are under the misconception that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is only here to take care of animals, just for hunters, and spend the rest of their time writing tickets for game violations. This is simply not the case.

I have a hunting buddy who is a game warden. He would ticket his own mother for swatting a mosquito out of season. Whenever we are outdoors together, I have to be sure and stay on my best behavior, lest I go home with a stack of citations. But the fact is, he cares more about Colorado’s wildlife than anyone I have ever met.

What got me thinking about this was something I saw on social media. Amongst all the stories of “what I had for lunch” and “I am angry about,” was a story of a child who was bitten by something while in the river. The injury was two gashes above the knee that required a number of stitches to close them up. The consensus of the computer experts was that it was a bite from a river otter.

The river otter, like many of the furbearers of Colorado, were victims of the Europeans settlement of the western United States. Trappers, for the value of their pelts, actively sought them. Active trapping went on through the 1800s until the five species of river otters native to Colorado were gone. By the 1920s, the river otter was a victim of extirpation, extinct in our state.

There are 11 species of the otter, which are all members of the weasel family. Smaller than sea otters, but larger than a mink, the river otter will weigh 15 to 25 pounds and reach a length of up to 48 inches. One-third of their length is the tail. They have a flattened head, rounded ears and an incredibly flexible spine. The color of their soft fur ranges from gray and white to black and brown.

Being a water animal, otters can stay submerged for up to eight minutes and swim at speeds over 7 mph. And they can dive to a depth of 60 feet. On land, they can run up to 18 mph. Their ears and nostrils actually close when they dive underwater. During the winter months, otters will swim under the ice to catch fish.

Mating season occurs usually in December. In April, the female will give birth and the litter may have up to five pups. It is possible that otters may be somewhat more aggressive during mating season, but unlikely to humans.

Otters have a very sharp set of canine teeth and molars capable of crushing shells of crustaceans. He can deliver a terrific bite, capable of breaking hand bones, but mostly punctures of the skin.

River otters primarily eat fish but have been known to eat mollusks, crawfish, birds, insects, frogs, rodents and turtles. You will note that humans are not on that list, but there is a story floating around about a river otter that killed and ate alligators in Florida. I am not able to confirm the story, and it may be an urban myth. Either that, or it was a small alligator.

Otters are extremely nearsighted, which may explain why they come so close to humans. While they are very territorial, usually they will move away from you when your presence is detected. Otters really don’t want anything to do with humans, and who can blame them?

What otters are really known for are their playful antics. Otters will slide down muddy banks on their belly and juggle pebbles and sticks. Sometimes they will play hide-and-seek or wrestle with their companions. River otters can be very entertaining to watch, but remember they are nearsighted, so keep your distance.

After missing in Colorado for over 50 years, CPW began a reintroduction program for the river otter. The program began in 1976 with the release of three juveniles in the area of Cheesman Reservoir. In August of 1976, several river otters were released in the Gunnison River, in our neck of the woods.

The otter is an incredibly difficult animal to census because of the wide area they occupy. Still listed as endangered in Colorado, the outlook is bright, thanks to the efforts of CPW. Nationwide, population estimates exceed 100,000.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has a form on their website, wherein they request you report any otter sightings. CPW continues to promote and monitor the river otter re-entry back in Colorado, as they do for all the animals of our state. The otter stands as another success story for CPW, along with the reintroduction of the lynx.

After all this research, I seriously doubt a river otter bit the child. I admit it is possible but would think only a rabid otter would ever go after a human. Being a mammal, an otter can become infected with rabies, but it is a rare occurrence.

As for me, I will continue to enjoy all the wildlife of Colorado and applaud the efforts of CPW in being stewards for their protection. In the meantime, I will be very careful whenever I am afield with my game warden buddy. I don’t want to kill a mosquito out of season. I doubt I could afford the fines.

Mark Rackay is a columnist for the Montrose Daily Press and avid hunter who travels across North and South America in search of adventure and serves as a Director for the Montrose County Sheriff’s Posse. For information about the Posse call 970-252-4033 (leave a message) or email info@mcspi.org

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