Return of the otters: One of the great comeback stories of Alberta wildlife
Otters were once nearly wiped out in southern Alberta, but the playful carnivores are back
If you're looking for otter tracks, keep an eye out for a distinctive "jump, lope, slide" pattern near the water.
As naturalist Brian Keating told The Homestretch, otters are mobile and can travel great distances as they jump and slide along the snow-covered ice of a river.
In 2017, Keating spotted a long otter trail, travelling upstream near the Calgary Zoo. And just this winter, he spotted some fresh tracks along the Karst Springs Trail in Kananaskis Country while cross-country skiing.
"We came across the tracks and I think that the otter was under the snow," Keating said.
"And then it popped out like a gopher hole. And it may be that we actually scared the otter out because the tracks were incredibly fresh."
The fresh otter tracks inspired Keating to ask around.
Keating said it looks like the otter population is increasing in Alberta.
In addition to his own sightings, there are reports of three otters in the South Saskatchewan River in Medicine Hat last February.
"According to the naturalists that work at the Police Point Park in Medicine Hat where the otters were photographed, the last time otters were seen in that area was about 100 years ago."
Then by chance, Keating he found out that retired biologist Martin Jalkotzy had written his masters thesis on the reintroduction of otters back into Kananaskis Country.
"Martin said that the otter population in Alberta is really becoming a success story, and Chris Fisher also said that their return, he believes, is one of the great comeback stories of Alberta wildlife," he said.
"Years ago you might only see an otter once every five years, you know, back in the '90s. But the fact that we're seeing them now fairly regularly is an indication that their numbers are increasing."
Otters are carnivores who survive mostly by fishing. Their sleek bodies are perfectly designed for life along the water with webbed feet and a thick, waterproof pelt.
"They are well equipped for hunting," Keating said.
"But I think the best part about otters is that they're playful. They just seem to involve themselves in behaviours just for the sheer enjoyment.
- Listen to the full interview with Brian Keating on The Homestretch here:
Otters nearly wiped out
Keating said the otter population was once nearly wiped out in Alberta.
"Their numbers were depleted when beaver trapping was intense … and it doesn't take very long to deplete a slow-to-reproduce carnivore like an otter," he said.
"They basically vanished from the Alberta landscape except of course, from the north."
Keating said Martin was involved in a project during the '80s to reintroduce otters to the ecosystem.
At that time, 11 otters from northeastern Alberta were reintroduced to habitable rivers in Kananaskis.
"The reintroduction started in the spring of 1981 and ended in the fall of 1982, and he did four release programs during that time," Keating said.
The idea was to monitor the otters however the program ended when funding was cut for the program in the early '80s.
But monitored or not, the otters seem to have thrived in their natural habitat.
Keating said Martin had speculated that maybe the tracks he spotted were from a descendent of the original 11 otters released to the area.
"It looks like otters are here to stay, and with a little bit of luck, we'll see them long into the future," Keating said.
For more fascinating stories about Alberta's wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:
- Why male 'gophers' start to hibernate mid-summer, a litter may have several dads and other nature facts
With files from The Homestretch.
- An earlier version of this article misstated the name of biologist Martin Jalkotzy.Apr 02, 2021 5:01 PM MT