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Otters in Pennsylvania

Maybe I should start this piece off by first describing what an otter is since the number of people who have actually seen one roaming the Pennsylvania countryside is probably pretty small. A river otter is an elusive aquatic mammal that belongs to the weasel family. It is closely related to mink, badgers, wolverines, and weasels. They are a dark, fur-covered animal that weighs 10-25 pounds and are about 30-40 inches in length, including their long-tapered tail.

Otters, sometimes referred to as river otters, do spend much of their time in and around water, where they obtain much of their food. Some of their favorite meals include minnows, sunfish, suckers, carp, and even trout, but they will also feed on frogs, turtles, snails, mussels, crayfish, snakes, snake eggs, worms, insects, and even aquatic plants.

What brought the subject of river otters to mind was a recent conversation I had with a local fur trapper. He informed me he has had a decent number of otter sightings right here in our area. That’s an encouraging sign since by the early 1900s; otters were considered extirpated from the state of Pennsylvania, probably due to unregulated trapping in those early years, water pollution, and loss of habitat. Over the past 19 years, however, 125 otters have been released, many of them into parts of northcentral Pennsylvania. Apparently, those released otters have adapted well and have continued to add to their numbers. I’m guessing about 8 or 10 years ago; I had the opportunity to spend time photographing a pair of otters that had taken up residence in a beaver pond not far from the Picture Rocks area; that was only the second time I had spotted an otter in the wild.

The fact is otters are doing so well, at least in parts of Pennsylvania, that trapping is again permitted. Trapping is only allowed in WMUs 1A, 1B, 2F, 3C, and 3D. Only one may be taken per year, and a furtaker license, as well as a special permit, are required to take them.

Obviously, if you hope to spot an otter, you are probably best off checking streams, lakes, and swampy areas. I’ve heard that big streams like Pine Creek offers an opportunity for sightings. They might be hard to spot even in streams and ponds since they can travel up to a quarter mile underwater without coming up for air. They can stay submerged for up to four minutes and dive to depths of 50 feet. A drop-in pulse rate makes the long submersions possible. Something else you may find interesting if you are lucky enough to spot an otter is that they are a very “playful” animal. Otters like to slide on ice or snow, shoot down slick muddy banks into the creek, play with sticks and stones and even wrestle with each other.

Otters do not hibernate, so they may even be spotted during the winter months, and even after lakes freeze, they will often swim under the ice. They are more sedentary in winter than in summer, especially during extreme cold spells, but they may sometimes travel up to 50 miles of a stream in search of food.

Well, now you can be on the lookout for otters, and by the way, if you are out looking for otters this week, stop by the Early Bird Sports Expo at the Bloomsburg Fairgrounds and say hello. Show dates are Thursday the 26th from 3-8, Friday the 27th from 10-8, Saturday the 28th from 10-8, and Sunday the 29th from 10-4. I’ll be set up there with my artwork, but there is a variety of hunting, fishing, and other outdoor products on display, as well as some good food.

I would also like to add that I can’t believe that I have been writing this column for the past 20 years.

Thanks to everyone who has followed my writing, and thanks to Jimmy Webb and his father for the opportunity.