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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Once endangered river otters now likely to be found in Kentucky for generations

This is the fourth article in a series about Kentucky furbearers

The river otter (Lontra canadensis) is thriving in Kentucky waterways.

A fast, acrobatic swimmer, the river otter has a long, tapered tail and a thick, water-repellent coat of light brown, gray and black fur. Despite its clownish, playful behavior at times, the river otter is a voracious predator.

This native species disappeared from most of the state by the mid 1900s, but was brought back by Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. A three-year restoration program, which started in 1991, was part of a nationwide effort in 21 states to restore the river otter to its native range.

An accomplished hunter, prey is captured with a quick rush from ambush. River otters feed on whatever fish species is most abundant, including gamefish, to the ire of anglers, but they also consume frogs, turtles, salamanders and crayfish (Photo by David Lindsey)

An accomplished hunter, prey is captured with a quick rush from ambush. River otters feed on whatever fish species is most abundant, including gamefish, to the ire of anglers, but they also consume frogs, turtles, salamanders and crayfish (Photo by David Lindsey)

Wild-trapped otters from Louisiana were released at 14 sites in central and eastern Kentucky, in the Barren, Kentucky, Licking, Salt, Big Sandy, Nolin and Green River basins. By 1994, 355 otters had been released across Kentucky.

Today, river otter numbers are highest in the northern third of the state, throughout the Purchase Region, and counties that border the Ohio River and the lower reaches of the Tennessee, Cumberland, Green, Salt, Kentucky and Licking Rivers.

Description and Life History

A stocky mammal that can weigh more than 25 pounds, the river otter has short, powerful legs with webbed toes, and a muscular neck. Males weigh slightly more than females, and a adult male can be 42 inches long.

The river otter’s nostrils and ears close during submersion, to keep out water. Able to remain underwater for about four minutes, the river otter can swim more than six miles per hour, and dive to a depth of more than 60 feet. Transparent membranes protect the otter’s eyes while swimming.

Its whiskers are long and thick, and help in sensory perception. The river otter’s sense of smell and hearing is acute.

River otters establish a burrow close to the water’s edge. The den typically has several tunnel openings, one of which allows the otter access by water. Females give birth in these underground burrows, producing a litter of one to three kits. Young leave the den at eight weeks of age.

An accomplished hunter, prey is captured with a quick rush from ambush. River otters feed on whatever fish species is most abundant, including gamefish, to the ire of anglers, but they also consume frogs, turtles, salamanders and crayfish.

They are most active early and late in the day and at night. They are nocturnal throughout the spring, summer, and fall, and diurnal (active during daylight hours) in winter.

Trapping Season in Kentucky

River otter populations were allowed to grow for 12 years after restoration before any harvests were allowed. A statewide trapping season opened in 2006, after it was determined that sustainable numbers of otters were present in every major watershed in the state.

In 2012 two harvest zones were established and the season bag limit was increased to 10 river otters per person per day. For details on Kentucky’s river otter zones, and harvest restrictions, visit www.fw.ky.gov. Click on 2015-16 Hunting and Trapping Guide.

A fast, acrobatic swimmer, the river otter has a long, tapered tail and a thick, water-repellent coat of light brown, gray and black fur

A fast, acrobatic swimmer, the river otter has a long, tapered tail and a thick, water-repellent coat of light brown, gray and black fur

River otters must be telechecked, and to sell the raw fur of a river otter, trappers and hunters must go online to www.fw.ky.gov or call 1-800-858-1549, and provide the telecheck confirmation number to request a CITES tag, which must be attached to the river otter pelt until it is processed.

In 1977, the river otter was listed in The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to ensure that international trade is not detrimental to the survival of wild populations.

For more outdoors news and information, see Art Lander’s Outdoors on KyForward.

The free CITES tags are issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency responsible for monitoring international trade of river otter fur.

Kentucky’s 2015-16 river otter season continues through Feb. 29, 2016. River otters are usually trapped along stream banks and lake shores, where the otter enters the water. Otters are creatures of habit and their sign is easy to find.

Fur Prices

While river otter fur has is in demand throughout Asia, especially China, the price has slumped in recent years.

Catherine Smith, a fur buyer in Scott County, said export and regulatory issues are impacting fur sales.

“All furs are down in price. Last year otter pelts were bringing $85 to $95,” said Smith. “This year the price is down even more.”

The price a fur brings at auction is based on grade, size and color of the fur. Just a few years ago otter fur was bringing as much as $140 at auction.

River otters are thriving in Kentucky and populations aren’t just limited to big rivers. With plenty of fish to eat and over 12,000 miles of waterways, the river otter will likely be a part of Kentucky’s landscape for generations to come.

1Art Lander Jr.Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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3 Comments

  1. Gene Phillips says:

    Two of these rascals were wrestling on a boat dock in Victoria Estates in Georgetown. Unfortunately, the battery in my Nikon was dead. I was amazed at their size. 2/15/2017.

  2. David Ebling says:

    Just noticed a large otter this morning near the end of March rolling and sunning himself on my fishing dock. I have a small to acre lake stock to the gills with enough fish for him to enjoy a good life. I have a couple of muskrats and geese with a Drake and Mallard also. Large Turtles and large frogs. Room for everybody as long as they don’t get greedy. Haha enjoyed the extra member of the community.

  3. David Ebling says:

    I live in Owensboro Kentucky and left a comment above. Grey Herring also is a family member which sleeps in a tree next to the house. Nightly and early in the morning I have between 4 + and 12 Deer grazing on the hillside next to the water. Several foxes and coyotes stay reclusive while the rabbits, squirrels and raccoons have their way with the property as well. I gave up the idea of growing a garden if you can guess why. Haha

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