Special to the Crier
Recently I received an email from a friend who had moved to Page, Arizona and who said that while fishing he saw a river otter climb onto shore. He said all the locals told him there were no otters in Lake Powell but I knew my friend knew how to identify a river otter. We had fished together many times in the Verde Valley where river otters are quite common. My friend asked “What can you tell me about this?” Little did I know that my investigations into the subject would reveal a thriving environmental success story.
The story begins in the 1960’s with the extinction of the Sonoran river otter in the wild. No one is sure exactly when the last Sonoran river otter disappeared from the wild but it is certain they did some time in the 1960’s. From 1981 to 1983 a reintroduction program was begun along the Verde River. Forty-six river otters were captured and imported from Louisiana before being released back into the wilds of Arizona.
I spent lots of time stomping up and down the banks of the Verde River trying to capture my first glimpse of a wild river otter. For a long time my attempts were unsuccessful. Many of my friends saw river otters. One of my friends has a house along the shores of Oak Creek and took a picture from his back porch of five otters, a photo that appeared in theSedona Red Rock News. The closest I came were river otter footprints in the sandy shore along Beasely Flats.
I had seen sea otters before. I still remember the scene. I was standing on the docks of Valdez, Alaska watching industrial ships come in and out of the harbor, the bay surrounded by towering jagged edged mountains holding glaciers. Floating just off the docks was a small pod of otters. They were diving beneath the water’s surface and returning to float on their backs and open some sort of shellfish. It was delightful to watch. I spent a lot time stomping up and down the thick brush of riverbanks of Arizona in my quest to get a glimpse of a river otter.
My efforts were rewarded unexpectedly, deep inside Sycamore Canyon outside Clarkdale. I was not even looking for otters, I was deep inside a narrow canyon and far from the main river. I approached a stream crossing and heard a sudden splashing. A large, long and slender mammal stood up on its hind legs for just a moment before scurrying into the nearest thicket. The otter and I stood there staring at each other across the stream and through the bushes. I kept pointing my camera and focusing but I already knew that all I would get was a good photo of a thicket. In the attempt to get a better photograph I marched forward and scared the otter from the bushes. The otter fled upstream at an astonishing rate of speed. Later on the trail crested a hill and I could see a large pool of water in the distance ahead where a pair of otters frolicked and swam. I have seen river otters in the Verde Valley several times since but always with the same amount of photographic success. The otters are pretty fast.
One time I was sitting and reading along the shores of Oak Creek in Page Springs and suddenly a beaver went swimming past. The beaver never knew I was there and if I had stretched out my legs I probably could have kicked it. The beaver swam by so quickly that I never had a chance to get my camera out but it was the first wild beaver I had ever seen in Arizona. There is a stretch of the Verde River in Cottonwood where I know of a family of beavers who produce a new kit every year. Beavers and otter in the same river is quite a treat. I have had a little better luck with beaver photographs than otter but not much. One sunrise when the beeping of my autofocus scared the family of beavers as they dove into the water with a loud splash, I cursed my luck and looked up to see a family of five raccoons in a cottonwood tree. Those pictures came out pretty good. The sad news is that the Verde River has become a threatened resource, many hydrologists believe that a water treatment plant scheduled for Prescott and Prescott Valley, will change the Verde River into a dry arroyo in 50-75 years.
There are also beaver in southern Arizona along the San Pedro River. I have stomped up and down the shores of the San Pedro looking for them. Never saw one of the San Pedro beaver but I was rewarded with glimpses of several vermillion flycatchers and one green kingfisher. There are no river otters on the San Pedro.
The Sonoran river otters used to swim as far north as Lake Powell but of course it wasn’t Lake Powell back then, it was Glenn Canyon. Back before the dams were built, the Sonoran river otters could traverse a network of riparian zones; the Gila, Salt, Verde, and Colorado rivers, and cover much of the southwest. The dams shut down some of these waterways or at best made long distance travel much more difficult and risky. When the Sonoran river otters went extinct they disappeared from Glen Canyon and then later in Lake Powell. The Cajun otters released into the Verde River have thrived spreading into Oak Creek, Sycamore Canyon, Clear Creek and others but there is no sign these otters have made the journey all the way down to the Colorado River and then hundreds of miles upstream, including the Grand Canyon, before scaling hundreds of feet up Glen Canyon dam. However in the 1990s northern river otters were released into the Escalante Wilderness in Utah. These otters have made their way down the San Juan, Green, and Colorado Rivers before making new homes in Lake Powell. It warms my heart to see how successful river otter reintroduction has been in the southwest and all I can do is cheer for them. Go otters!