Otters journey from Liberty Bay to the Rio Grande

A relocated river otter awaits release in northern New Mexico in November 2010. - David Sinnett/Wildlife Services
A relocated river otter awaits release in northern New Mexico in November 2010.
— image credit: David Sinnett/Wildlife Services

POULSBO — Somewhere along the shores of New Mexico’s Upper Rio Grande a river otter is hunting for fish 1,000 miles from its native home.

A few months ago the otter was seen as a nuisance by boaters in its old haunts at the Port of Poulsbo. Now it’s a welcomed newcomer in New Mexico, transplanted by biologists as part of an effort to repopulate otters on the Rio Grande River.

Biologists caught six otters in Poulsbo in the last three years to relocate to the Rio Grande. One was caught and transported this fall and biologists will return to Liberty Bay in January. The North Kitsap otters join 23 relocated to New Mexico from ports and private docks in Puget Sound.

Many marinas are glad to offer up the otters, which can be irritating neighbors. Otters often clamber onto unoccupied boats and floats leaving dung, broken shells and other refuse behind.

Relocating otters to New Mexico has helped the Port of Poulsbo maintain a “more tolerable” population of the animals, said Port Manager Kirk Stickels.

“The otters are nice to see,” Stickels said. “But when we get an overabundance of them we find we get damage.”

Messy habits aren’t a concern for New Mexico conservationists.

Deforestation and unregulated trapping led to the disappearance of otters from New Mexico by the early 1900s, according to Amigos Bravos, a founding member of the New Mexico Friends of River Otters coalition.

The coalition is a publicly and privately run group, working to reestablish the state’s otter population. The last otter in New Mexico was seen in 1953. The coalition began clearing bureaucratic hurdles to transplanting otters in the mid 1990s.

Federal Wildlife Services Biologist Darren Bruning joined the effort in 2005, working with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and Taos Pueblo tribe members to find river habitats where relocated otters would thrive.

He also coordinated with Washington wildlife officials to determine if the region’s otter population was stable enough to allow animals to be relocated. Bruning discovered many places, like the Port of Poulsbo, where people were willing to pay a fee to have otters trapped and moved out.

The otters are caught in box traps and moved to a holding facility where they are checked for diseases.

So far, Bruning has made three flights and several road trips to New Mexico to transport otters. When driving, the air conditioning stays on and windows are rolled down to keep the animals from becoming stressed. Bruning doesn’t talk or listen to the radio, keeping human voices to a minimum for the 36-hour drive.

“We do everything we can to minimize stress so we deliver healthy animals in good condition,” he said. “For the human drivers it’s not a comfortable trip.”

The animals are released into their new surroundings gradually, spending 48 hours in a pod in a small river tributary before being given total freedom to roam. Otters have been seen up to 80 miles from the release site, a sign they are exploring the river and their new habitat.

Each trip costs several thousand dollars and is paid for by the coalition. Some flights are donated by supporters, Bruning said.

Otter relocation costs the Port of Poulsbo a few hundred dollars. It’s a good trade compared to the man hours it takes to clean up after them, Stickels said. And the otters don’t seem to mind.

“Water’s water to them,” he said.

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