Spying on Otters to Protect Clean Streams

Environmental Commentary by Cindy Ross

I am tramping around the Pocono Mountains in the upper reaches of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay watershed with retired Pennsylvania Game Commission officer Barry Warner. After twenty-five years working these lands, he knows where the otters hang out.

We walk through tall grasses and high bush blueberries, stepping gingerly as we look for otter, otter sign and otter scat.

Particularly scat. We humans with our credit cards, Facebook, cell phone use are used to being tracked. Now, thanks to a new, more accurate system of collecting scat and using fecal DNA samples, scientists are developing new insights into otter life. No more secrets for the otter. His cover is blown.

The system, which was previously used on otters in Missouri, was introduced last January in Pennsylvania by Penn State. Nick Foreman, a masters’ candidate spearheads the program. The collected DNA samples will tell biologists how many of these secretive animals there are, provide information on individual animals, count how many occupy a certain stretch of stream and allow the biologists to track their movements.

Tom Hardisky, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said the multi-year study is being conducted to help game officials decide whether or not to open a fur-bearing trapping season. But, he adds, the secondary purpose is to protect wildlife and our natural environment.

“Otters are an important indicator species,” Hardisky said. “They depend on pure water, healthy habitat and controlled trapping. Otter numbers are a great indicator of water quality and stream conditions.”

There is growing concern for the otter because of increased drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, a gas-rich formation underlying much of the Mid-Atlantic. The extracting process has the potential to silt up waterways, which could impact the otters’ habitat, and hence alter otter populations. The fish and game department has also stepped up monitoring of other indicator species. Entire fish populations could be at stake if there is a crisis.

“If water quality changes and the stream is impaired, the otters’ prey could disappear and the otters would get out of there right away,” Hardisky said.

“Once baseline numbers of otters have been calculated, we will have figures from which to compare. If something happens, we can get in there right away, investigate, and make a swift conclusion,” Hardisky said.

The six Pennsylvania counties in the upper reaches of the Susquehanna River hold many ponds, streams, and boggy areas that offer ideal habitat to these water-loving creatures. This land is so ideal for otter that when the rest of Pennsylvania’s otter population collapsed and disappeared in the late 1800s, otters remained in the Pocono Northeast.

Now river otters have taken up residency in every major river drainage system in Pennsylvania, but Pennsylvania wildlife managers want to make sure they have substantial numbers before they let the trappers loose.

Play is considered a mark of high intelligence in an animal and the river otter is the play-baby of them all. They’ve been filmed shooting down muddy banks, chasing and wrestling one another, and juggling sticks and stones, and even their food.

Otters are a high alert indicator species and can signal a problem before man is even aware of it. Because they are so dependent on aquatic life and very specific in their food choices, they would be impacted very quickly if the water was polluted, and they would leave. They are unlike some other animals that prey on a variety of life. Mink, for example, if deprived of fish would eat something else, such as field mice.

Now, with land managers and the population in general paying closer attention to our streams and rivers amid the looming threat of drilling in the Marcellus Shale, the river otters are more important than ever. Learning their secrets may help us all protect clean streams.

Cindy Ross writes from Pennsylvania. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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