(Published in Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine – select ‘Articles’ tab to see other writing samples)
Kerry Christensen bent over the unconscious otter and clamped his lips around its mouth to resuscitate it, while fearing it would awaken and bite his face off. Christensen had gotten himself into this mess by becoming a biology graduate student at Northern Arizona University. Soon after arriving on campus, he found himself slogging through snow drifts carrying an armload of dead rabbits to a barn where 20 ill-tempered, snarling Louisiana river otters awaited a meal. Playing nursemaid to this ravenous mob of carnivores was not exactly what he’d imagined, but it was all part of a plan hatched by the Arizona Department of Game and Fish to reintroduce otters to the Verde River.
Otters have lived in Arizona for millennia – 10,000-year-old otter bones were found in a cave in the Grand Canyon – though historical accounts suggest they have never been numerous. Mountain men trapping along the Verde, Salt, and Gila Rivers rarely mention them in their journals. In 1886, Edgar Mearns, an Army surgeon and naturalist with a bristling mustache and observant eye, shot a river otter at Montezuma’s Well. He sent it to the American Museum of Natural History where it was designated as a new sub-species, Lutra Canadensis sonorous, or, the sonoran river otter. The last sonoran otter was trapped in 1953. A few tantalizing, but unconfirmed, sightings have been reported since then in lonely, secret canyons along the San Juan in New Mexico.
River otters are smaller cousins of sea otters, weighing around 30 pounds. As their name suggests, they dwell in rivers, creeks, lakes, and ponds, but sometimes along the seashore. Sleek furred mammals, they are related to weasels, badgers, ferrets, and wolverines. Otters live in family groups that hunt and play together. The female otter makes her den in the burrows of other animals, such as beaver or muskrat, and has even been known to evict the resident animal from a desirable den. Here she births a litter of several cubs which she cares for tenderly. Observing otters in the wild can be difficult, as they are aware of your presence long before you see them.
Kerry Christiansen and a veterinarian implanted radio tracking tags in the abdomens of the captive Louisiana river otters– collars will just slide off an otter—a surgical procedure requiring general anesthesia. One of the otters went into cardiac arrest, but Christiansen brought it back from the brink, and fortunately, it didn’t bite his face off. The otters were released into the Verde River in February 1982. For the next year and a half Christensen tracked the otters, sometimes from a plane, but mostly on foot. With his equipment strapped to his back, he would stand on a rocky outcrop holding up his radio antenna, listening to static on the receiver. If an otter was nearby, his receiver would beep. He followed the beeps into rugged country along the Verde and East Verde, up West Clear Creek, Fossil Creek, Wet Beaver Creek, but the otters were elusive. When he finally did find one, it was a bedraggled carcass. He wondered what had become of the rest of the gang.
Some of them must have survived, because now there is a thriving population of otters along the Verde and its tributaries. They delight in raiding the Bubbling Ponds Fish Hatchery, selectively eating the juicy and slow swimming endangered roundtail chub and razorback suckers in the research ponds. Biologists there have had to install special fences to keep them out.
The subject of what river otters eat has been a point of contention between people who are in favor of reintroducing river otters to the Grand Canyon, and those who fear that the otters would decimate native fish at their spawning grounds. Christensen’s research shows that river otters eat primarily fish, including the Gila sucker, roundtail chub, Carp, and catfish, but no trout, while Dr. Paul Polechla, a biologist recently hired by the Nature Conservancy to survey otters in the Verde watershed, has found that they eat a lot of invasive crayfish, especially in the summer, and fish in the fall and winter, including trout. But perhaps the controversy is moot. A couple of years ago park ranger Jessica Bland spotted a river otter at Pierce Ferry on the Colorado River just below the Grand Canyon. Otters can travel surprisingly long distances over land, as well as swim. There is no barrier preventing them from entering the Grand Canyon if they want to go there. They could be there already.