Otters return to Yampa Valley
Steamboat Springs — Old time Routt County residents have begun moving back into the valley after being away for almost 70 years.
Colorado Division of Wildlife Officer Jim Hicks said the presence of river otters in the Yampa River within Routt County’s boundaries have been confirmed this winter.
“The last recorded otter was trapped from the Yampa in the 1930s,” Hicks said.
A group of about 40 volunteers turned out at Yampa River State Park just west of Hayden March 2 to look for signs of the otters and were rewarded with sightings of snow slides used by the otters, confirmed tracks and scat, but no actual sightings.
Hicks has been receiving independent reports of sightings, including two from reliable sources who spied otters while walking on the Yampa River Core Trail in Steamboat Springs.
“One of our goals is to determine what kind of density we have here,” Hicks said. “There are probably five to six pairs from what we saw. There could be more.”
Determining the number of otters using the Routt County section of the river is a little difficult because the animals typically travel up and down the stream. Hicks said most of the current otter evidence has been found between the Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch (east of Hayden) and the Moffat County line.
The otters here are almost certainly the progeny of otters originally stocked in the Green River in Utah, Hicks said. As otters raise new families, the youngsters have to spread out to establish territories of their own. It’s a natural step for the young otters to move upstream into the Yampa.
The otters are known for their swimming ability, but they are fully capable of traveling across land to find new territory, Hicks said.
Otters have recently established themselves near Gould, east of Walden. Those animals are believed to have come from parents that were reestablished near Grand Lake.
Otters are strictly carnivores and the Yampa, with a good supply of crayfish and fish, represents good habitat, Hicks said. The otters are more apt to feed on slower species of fish than trout and northern pike, which form the basis of the sport fishery in the Yampa.
The historic range of river otters covered most of North America. The animals were once common in most of the major river drainages of Colorado but were hunted and trapped until they were wiped out in the state. Reintroduction began in 1976.
The animals belong to the family mustelid, and grow to be 3 to 4 feet long. They can be mistaken for beaver and muskrats while swimming, but can’t be mistaken when they climb out of the river to romp on the banks, Hicks said. In contrast to the broad flat tail of the beaver, otters have long rope-like tails.
The animal’s droppings may seem like a poor substitute for an actual sighting, but the scat is a convenient way to confirm the animals’ presence. Otters often return to the same spot to defecate.
The droppings are similar in shape and size to a human finger and will contain fish bones and crayfish parts.
The tracks will reflect a forefoot two to three inches wide and three to four inches long.
The hind feet are heavily webbed, 3 to 4 inches wide and 4 to 5 inches long.
Hicks said he will plan a similar outing to look for signs of otters in the Steamboat area next winter. He welcomes calls from people who are certain they’ve seen an otter at 870-2197.
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