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Mar 27, 2018 10:18 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

River Otters Are On The Rebound

Map of the distribution of otters on Long Island from 2008-2018. MICHAEL PINTAURO
Mar 27, 2018 10:18 AM

Among the many interesting attributes of the river otter—a large member of the mustelid or weasel family measuring between 36 and 50 inches in length from nose to tail tip—is the quality of its fur. It is short but durable and extremely dense, more than six times denser than that of a domestic dog. Only the sea otter has denser fur.During the 250 year-long Fur Trade era (1600-1850), unregulated hunting and trapping for furs decimated populations of furbearers throughout their historic range on the North American continent. Sea otter and river otter pelts were the gold standards of the fur industry, and populations of both were particularly hard hit during this time. River otters were completely extirpated from large areas of their former range, including most of New York state. Despite conservation laws enacted in the early 1900s, their low reproductive rate made for a very slow recovery, and by 1995 they still had not made inroads in the western half of the state.

When they established home ranges and a breeding population on Long Island is unknown. When I moved back here from graduate school in 1988, there were reports of otter sightings, and the occasional roadkill. I knew a fair bit about otters, and if there were otters here I knew how to find conclusive evidence of their presence.

My interest in, and knowledge of, river otters stemmed from one of my mentors who lived in southern New Hampshire. John Kulish was a grizzled, self-taught naturalist with a high school diploma, and a professional trapper turned environmental educator. He gave up trapping for a living when he realized that he could earn a paycheck taking students out in the woods. His first job was teaching Boston University students. He was terrible in the classroom, but out in the woods he had both students and their Ph.D.-laden profs spellbound.

Armed with the knowledge of how to locate an otter latrine in any given watershed, I made a habit of checking suitable sites while exploring my new home turf on the South Fork via my favorite mode of travel: canoe. There was no shortage of great otter habitat and potential otter latrine sites, but there was no otter sign.

I phoned John one day with a question: “Could otters swim across Long Island Sound?” He did not respond immediately, and the tone of his answer was not very reassuring. His experiences with otters were based on the relatively small lakes and rivers in southern New England, and none of those waterways included a 15-20 mile open water swim. So he was doing the math: they can maintain a 5-7 mph pace in the water, and a crossing of the sound would be an easy morning swim for an otter.

The real question was “would an otter swim across the sound?” And I later learned that the answer was no. They are predisposed not to make open water crossings greater than approximately five miles. So I was looking for otters on the wrong end of Long Island: if they had a foothold here, it was most likely to be on the north shore of Nassau County where they could make the jump over from Westchester and Connecticut via Pelham Bay Park.

Twenty years after my arrival on the East End I had the time and funding to settle the question: “Are we seeing the occasional transient otter or do we have a resident otter population with established home ranges?” Although I did find several otter latrines on the East End in 2008, including at the headwaters of one of my favorite paddling spots—Alewife Creek in East Hampton—later work with remote cameras indicated that this was a single otter, most likely the mate of the female that was killed by a vehicle in March of 2006. An examination of the corpse revealed she had just given birth to two pups, neither of which were weaned, making it a three otter mortality incident.

It was the north shore of Nassau County and western Suffolk, including the entire watershed of the Nissequogue River, that was colonized by otters, with the largest latrine located near Shu Swamp at the western end of the Oyster Bay estuary. Ten years later, although my survey is still underway, I have documented five new otter latrine sites at locations that I visited in 2008 and found no sign.

Incorporating the new data into the map of river otter distribution on Long Island, their range here has doubled in size. Although they’ve wreaked havoc in several koi ponds, and one fish hatchery, I’m very happy to welcome the otters along with the bald eagles, whales and seals, as a returning resident to Long Island.

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