Elusive river otter has returned to Western Pennsylvania

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COOKSBURG, Pa. -- Skiing, ice fishing, snowshoeing -- all typical diversions that outdoor types might pursue during this robust winter of 2014. But trudging through deep snow along an ice-choked river might be a bit beyond the norm.

Unless you're into otters.

That's just how two dozen winter stalwarts spent a recent blustery Saturday, following DCNR environmental education specialist Dale Luthringer along the Clarion River through Cook Forest State Park in search of otters or signs of their presence.

River otters, Lutra canadensis, originally lived throughout all of Pennsylvania's river systems. Water pollution that killed fish and unregulated fur harvest nearly exterminated them in the state. By the mid-20th century, otters survived in only a few watersheds in the state's northeastern corner.

Beginning in the 1970s, work to restore water quality paid off. Fish and other aquatic life returned to once-polluted streams. In 1982 the Game Commission and Frostburg University began an effort to reintroduce river otters to Pennsylvania. They released 153 wild otters captured in Louisiana, Maryland and New York into several healing watersheds in Central and Western Pennsylvania. Waters that received otters were the Allegheny River, Tionesta Creek, Youghiogheny River, Laurel Hill Creek, Pine Creek, Kettle Creek, Loyalsock Creek and the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River.

Monitoring proved the otters liked their new homes, reproducing and spreading throughout watersheds.

"No otters were released in the [Clarion] river itself, but they began showing up in the Clarion here at Cook Forest around 2002," Luthringer said.

Warning participants not to stray onto the river ice ("... You could break through and be swept away to certain doom"), Luthringer led his group beside the floes, pointing out otter slides and latrine sites (where otters deposit scent to establish territory) along the Clarion.

"We haven't seen this much ice on the Clarion in years," Luthringer told the group. "This is actually a good time to look for otters because they'll stand out against the white background if we are lucky enough to see one come out on the surface."

It was clear from signs Luthringer pointed out that several otter family groups inhabit that stretch of the Clarion. They just weren't so accommodating as to frolic on the ice in plain view. Still, Luthringer's followers expressed no disappointment.

"We're what you might call nature nuts," Jeff Shay of Knox said of himself and wife Debbie. "We've seen otters in Alaska but we want to see one in Pennsylvania. Now, at least, we know where to look. We'll be back on our own. Eventually, we'll see one."

"Seeing a Pennsylvania otter is on my bucket list," said Bill Shimbeck of Sheffield. "I'd love to get a photograph but these are wild creatures and you can't count on them posing for you."

Besides learning how to recognize otter signs, a highlight was finding bear tracks venturing out from the shore about half way into the river. It was hard to tell if the bear had ambled in another direction or swam away through a gap in the ice.

"[Bears] come out of hibernation every once in awhile and look around," Luthringer said.

Otters are members of the weasel family (mustelidae) and are related to weasels, mink, fishers, martens, badgers and wolverines. Supremely adapted to water, they capture most of their food while swimming. Fish, naturally, are favorites including suckers, carp, sunfish and trout. But otters utilize the entire aquatic ecosystem and readily prey on crayfish, mussels (otters can crunch the shells with their teeth) frogs, snakes and even turtles.

"Sometimes an otter will pull a big carp up onto the ice and then everything eats -- otters, eagles, coyotes and foxes," Luthringer said.

Kim and Jake Means of Brookville told the group about an otter encounter that reveals a wider diet beyond fish and frogs.

"We were fishing on the Clarion near Clarington and we saw something pure white moving underwater toward us," Kim Means said. "It looked like a plastic bottle or some kind of garbage but garbage doesn't move upstream. Then this otter surfaced right in front of us and it had an American merganser [the male ducks have large areas of white plumage] in its mouth."

"That was a neat thing to see. I didn't even know there were otters around here," Jake Means said. "So we came here today to learn more about them."

Otters have spread so widely since their reintroduction to the state that a trapper caught one by accident recently while legally trapping beavers along Pittsburgh's North Shore.

"They're a sign of a healthier landscape," Luthringer told the group. "Like the eagles that people see frequently now. They wouldn't be in the river if there weren't fish to eat."

"It would have been amazing to see a real otter but it's a thrill just to see their tracks and slides," said Melissa Rohm of Scott.

Find events at Cook Forest and other state parks at www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks, select "Calendar of Events."

Ben Moyer is a freelance writer from Farmington, Pa.

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