We walk through tall grasses and high bush blueberries in our cloddy hip boots, stepping gingerly on the soft ground. Alongside Mehoopany Creek, there are holes every few feet, and we are unable to see what lies beneath. A leg drops into one, we trip, we slide. I’m poking around the wilds of Game Lands 57 with retired Regional Director, Barry Warner, looking for otter and otter sign. He points out a hole that is actively being used. The edges of the hole have frozen moisture around it. The frost actually comes from the otter’s breath that condenses on the rim of the hole as it exits and freezes.
I’m knee deep in otter/beaver/mink heaven. In a three county wide area, there is a plethora of ponds and streams and boggy areas offering ideal habitat to these water-loving creatures. Some of the habitat is Game Lands 57, 66, and 13; some is state forest, others is Rickett’s Glen State Park and some is private…a vast, mostly protected land. There are almost 100,000 acres across Wyoming, Luzerne, and Sullivan counties and this ideal otter habitat even extends into parts of Monroe, Carbon and Susquehanna counties.
This land is so ideal that when the rest of the state’s otter population collapsed and disappeared by the late 1800s, otters never left this pocket of the Pocono Northeast. Otters depend on pure water, healthy habitat and controlled trapping, all of which were in decline or non-existent throughout most of the state back then. But by the late 1980’s, water quality improved, trapping was prohibited and a reintroduction program was underway. From 1982-2004, over 150 native otters were trapped and transferred to other areas of the state. Much of this work was done by wildlife ecologist Dr. Tom Serfass, currently from Maryland’s Frostburg State University and PA Game Commission’s biologists Dr. Matt Lovalla and Tom Hardisky.
“River otters have taken up residency in every major river drainage system in the state,” he announced.
The population is so healthy that a multi-year study is being undertaken to estimate the distribution and abundance of river otter populations in northeastern Pennsylvania.
The river otter is closely related to the mink and the weasels and is a member of the mustelid family.
An adult weighs 12-20 pounds which includes a 12-20 inch tail. They can swim fast- 7 miles per hour, dive to 60 feet, travel underwater for a ¼ mile and hold their breath for up to four minutes. Long, stiff whiskers help them feel for food in murky waters. Their heart rate drops while they are underwater, slowing the blood and oxygen flow. They can tread water for long periods of time, keeping their neck above the water’s surface to look around. The soles of their webbed hind feet have rough protrusions that act like studded snow tires. On land, they can run at the speed of 18 miles an hour. Their diet consists of mainly fish, but also crawfish, clams, frogs and toads, tadpoles, salamanders, snails, turtles, earthworms, snakes and birds. Play is considered a mark of high intelligence in an animal and the river otter is the pay-baby of them all, sliding on ice and snow, on purpose! They’ve been filmed shooting down muddy banks, chasing and wrestling with one another, and juggling sticks and stones and even their food before they eat it.
If you want to find otters or at least otter sign, there are key places to look, Barry tells me. Where a spring comes into a pond or lake, like the Rickett’s Glen State Park’s Lake Jean, you can sometimes see them fooling around on their backs. Spring water moves too much to freeze solid most winter days so otters gravitate there needing the open water to dive for fish. Otters do not hibernate in the winter, and are active year round.
“Here is an example of where an otter came up to play in the grass,” Barry tells me, as we follow alongside Splashdam Pond. “The grasses are compacted at the slides.” We walk past a number of these ‘dining areas’ where the otters crawled out of the water for a lunch break, or just to nose around, using their hind feet to push up. If the water in the area around the hole is not real dark, but clear, this is a spot where they go in and out of. It could be an active beaver den or an otter took over. If the trail is wide, it is a beaver. Usually, Barry can tell who is using the trail. I have to take his word for it. Trappers know. It is their business to know. They seldom set a bank den and here they are every ten feet apart. Pennsylvania fur trappers are not allowed to take otters. Otters have been protected since 1952.
Where the creek makes an elbow, a flattened 20-yard long raceway stretches from one streamside bank to the other. Otters take short cuts. They’re not going to stay in the water, keeping the stream company as it makes a wide meandering turn, like the beaver. They’re going to hop out and make a short cut across the bend. Besides, it’s a chance to investigate what is going on up top, perhaps something interesting. Otters are notoriously curious.
“This cross-over is proof that otters are here”, Barry explains, “and not just beavers. Beavers simply would not get out of the water.” Barry points out the row of quaking aspen 100 yards away, the beaver’s favorite bark. Deer trails intersect the otter slides. A fresh bear bed compressed the grasses where the bruin took a nap.
When exploring otter territory, it is difficult not to also hold beavers foremost in your mind. They consistently use the same habitat. The two species co-exist like brothers. Learning about one, you gain insight into the other species. They can hardly be separated.
Beavers are known to create habitat for so many species. On state game lands 57, there are several large 10-acre ponds which are ideal beaver and otter territory. We stop at a large pond’s outlet and Barry uses his hooked stick to pull up debris clogging the outflow pipe. There are chew marks covering nearly every stick-leftovers from beaver meals. This pipe must be cleaned out every week by the food and cover crew, that’s how active the beavers are in this area. This outflow was the most successful spot in trapping the otters during the transfer program. Any pipe with flowing water through it, a beaver will use. An otter however, will climb out and go alongside it, so setting a trap here would be highly successful.
“It was quite a rodeo when we caught a live otter in a net,” Barry says. “They behave like Tasmanian devils. A little ‘happy juice’ must be administered to calm them down so they may be safely handled for processing.”
Barry takes me walking across the top of a beaver dam, a first for me. We point our feet sideways as we walk, like ducks, to get more surface area beneath us, balancing on the chewed off sticks. The water is a rich dark brown, full of tannic acid. The beaver dam was built over top of a low flood control dam that the game commission put in years ago to create habitat. Looks like it is doing its job. We follow the curved dam break over to the beaver’s lodge.
In a recent phone interview, wildlife biologist Tom Hardisky tells me that it has just become statewide law that trappers must keep beaver traps at least fifteen feet away from a dam or lodge, since there is so much otter traffic at these sites. Otters habitually use beaver dams as crossings. This will cut down on accidental captures. It is also recommended to set the position of the trigger release so otters can swim right through and smaller beavers will not be caught. The adult will however. As long as beavers live, they continue to grow bigger.
If a trapper accidentally snags an otter in a beaver trap, they have to hand it over to the Game Commission officials. They glean what biological data they can, especially from the females and then they are sold to individuals or taxidermists for mounting or donated to schools for educational purposes. Tom says they get approximately 10-20 accidental catches a year in northeastern Pennsylvania.
A new, more accurate system of counting otters will be introduced this January, developed by Penn State. Nick Foreman, a masters’ candidate will spearhead the program of collecting scat and identifying individuals by their DNA. They will be able to determine how many individuals occupy a certain stretch of stream. Scientists have used the collecting technique on coyotes but Tom believes it has never been used with otters.
Since Barry’s retirement, he’s finally freed up to enjoy the beautiful otter territory in the Pocono Northeast and is eager to help with the present monitoring program. His vast knowledge of the territory enables him to help find and target active otter spots using a GPS.
If after two years of collecting, results are positive, the program will expand to other areas of the state.
He promises, “If and when we decide to have a season on otters, it will probably only be where populations are abundant and will limit the take, limit the number of trapping permits awarded, and/or limit the season.”
Since the otters’ presence is an indicator of the purity of the water, there is concern over the state’s increased Marcellus Shale drilling. The extracting process has the potential to silt up the state’s waterways which could impact the otter habitat, and hence the otter population. Healthy populations of wildlife are never something we can take for granted.
The coolest thing about poking around in a critter’s country is learning about it- how it thinks, where it moves, trying to figure it out and understand it, getting to know it better. Whether Pennsylvania ever opens season on otters or not, the ponds and streams of these GC lands are an ideal place to come to learn and just enjoy these amazing creatures.