How river otters are making a comeback on P.E.I. after 100 years

The species was thought to be locally extinct until very recently, but are being seen once again on P.E.I. Where did they come from?

'We may have a re-establishing river otter population'

The Kensington North Watersheds Association has captured several river otters on its trail camera this summer. (Kensington North Watersheds Association/Facebook)

Nearly 100 years after they disappeared from the province, river otters are again being spotted on Prince Edward Island.

The species is native to P.E.I., but was thought to have died out in the early 1900s due to a loss of habitat, poaching and trapping. 

But since 2016, provincial wildlife biologist Garry Gregory says there have been reports of credible sightings.

"We may have a re-establishing river otter population that, you know, is resident to Prince Edward Island once again," Gregory said.

"This re-establishment appears to be of their own volition. There's been no deliberate reintroduction effort."

River otters take to ... the sea?

So how did the creatures arrive on the Island? 

Despite their name, it's likely the river otters swam by sea, Gregory said.

"A small group probably came over from the mainland — there are resident native populations in both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — and you know, swimming across the strait to P.E.I. is certainly not unheard of," Gregory said.

"Otters are great swimmers ... they're able to move pretty far distances during dispersal. So certainly not out of the question."

There is potentially successful reproduction occurring in the province.— Garry Gregory

River otters are mustelids — part of the weasel family — and are brown and sleek, appearing almost black in colour when wet. 

Gregory said those spotted on P.E.I. have been quite large, close to nine to 11 kilograms (20 to 25 pounds). He estimates the current population on the Island is a few dozen, but no more.

"It would be very, very small relative to what we might consider sustainable," he said.

"I would characterize the population certainly as vulnerable right now."

The otters have been spotted in the Morell river area, up West and in Kensington, where they have been monitored by the Kensington North Watersheds Association using trail cameras.

"In Kensington, some of their observations on the trail camera monitoring program suggest a family group. It appears to be an adult female, perhaps with young of the year. That's an encouraging sign that there is potentially successful reproduction occurring in the province," Gregory said.

"It will take, you know, multiple generations to establish itself to a kind of a viable, sustainable level."

River otters have a social nature and have been known to travel together — even in groups of up to 17 bachelors — but also characteristically stand their ground if they come face to face with a perceived threat, like a human.

Gregory said the best thing for Islanders to do if they see an otter is to report the sighting, so the province can better distribute resources and enact a management plan for the species.

Though he's never before observed native re-establishment in his career as a biologist, Gregory said it is not unheard of. 

And with modern regulations on trapping and poaching and wetland and buffer zone protections, otters have more of a fighting chance on the Island than 100 years ago.

"Certainly, it's exciting."


Nicola MacLeod is a reporter with CBC in P.E.I.


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