River otter are one of the most enjoyable species of wildlife to see in the wild, when and if you get the chance. Although they occupy virtually every stream, wetland, and pond in Virginia, their secretive and mostly-nocturnal nature makes them elusive and difficult to observe. They have short, dark brown fur that appears almost black when wet and a white chin and throat. Their body is torpedo-shaped, long and muscular, with a powerful tail and short legs. They move gracefully through the water using their webbed feet and an undulating body motion for propulsion and their large muscular tail as a rudder. Otter are expert fishermen living on a diet of fish, frogs, crayfish, turtles, and snakes. River otter have a unique habit of sliding or “tobogganing” down icy or muddy stream banks. Families of otter have been observed repeatedly climbing steep banks and sliding down on their belly with their feet and legs turned backward—looks like fun!
Today, river otter are relatively common throughout Virginia, but the story hasn’t always been this bright for the species. In fact, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries listed the river otter as state endangered and closed the trapping season west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1978. The clearing of stream banks, pollution, and overharvest are all reasons why otters were virtually extirpated from the western portion of the state. The Department, along with efforts to improve riparian and stream habitats, began to supplement the natural migration of otters back to western Virginia with restocking. Beginning in March 1988, seventeen river otter were moved from Louisiana to the Cowpasture River in Bath County and additional otter from the Coastal Plain of Virginia were moved west to help supplement the population. Numbers of otters rebounded relatively quickly and the species was removed from the state endangered list in 1990.
River otter populations have now recovered to levels that wildlife biologist deem capable of sustaining trapper harvest once again. Fifteen counties in the northwest mountains were opened to limited trapper harvest in 2006 and the remainder of the state (including Southwest Virginia) was opened to otter trapping in 2009. To protect from future overharvest in the west, there is a season bag limit of four otters per trapper, per year. Mike Fies, furbearer biologist for the Department, continues to track the health and reproductive success of otters with the help of trapper collected specimens and closely watching harvest. He reports that the population in the west, though lower than the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, continues to increase.
For more information about Virginia’s wildlife and species of concern you can check out the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan.