Otter-less Youghiogheny is renewed Animals returned to native range

April 05, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

GRANTSVILLE -- The otter slowly emerges from the wooden box, sniffs the snow-covered ground and slides down the bank into the muddy, rising waters of the Casselman River.

Transported from a pond near Vienna on the Eastern Shore, this 20-pound male is one of three otters to be released on this particular day in the Youghiogheny River basin of northern Garrett County.

"We have two males and a female. It's really unusual to set three free in one day," says Leslie Johnston, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager in Garrett County, who is overseeing the release of the river otters.

These furbearers have been transported by airplane to Garrett County as part of DNR's river otter relocation program. They were trapped the same day or late the day before in the tidewaters of Dorchester and Caroline counties on the Eastern Shore, where otters are plentiful.

"Our philosophy is to get them out [to Garrett County] as soon as possible," says Peter Jayne, supervisor of DNR's furbearer and upland game program. "We want to minimize the stress on the otters. They're high-strung animals and don't handle well. We've taken efforts to minimize the stress, and I think it's paid off."

So far, 34 otters -- including six this year -- have been relocated to the Youghiogheny River basin of Pennsylvania and Garrett County, where otters have not lived since the turn of the century. Sediment pollution from intensive logging and mining wiped out the populations.

"One of the hallmarks of wildlife management is to reintroduce wildlife to native ranges," Mr. Jayne says. "One of our goals in Western Maryland is to provide nonconsumptive use. They are a great species for observation, and Garrett County is a good vacation spot. We hope people will enjoy the otters."

The two-week relocation program, in which DNR officials are on 24-hour call to transport the web-footed aquatic mammals, ended yesterday. DNR officials said there are no biological reasons for running the program at this time of the year; they've just had success in early spring.

Before transport, the otters -- which average about 18 pounds and 40 inches in length -- are tagged (so they can be identified if caught or killed) and checked for injuries by a veterinarian. The flight from the Eastern Shore to Garrett County takes about two hours.

None of the otters has died during transport. A few have died later -- after being hit by cars or trucks on roads, Mr. Jayne says. One died after being trapped accidentally in West Virginia.

Otters are protected in Garrett County. In other parts of Maryland, otters may be trapped for their fur from January through March 15. Trappers are limited to five otters in the state's tidewater areas and one elsewhere, Mr. Jayne says.

"They're durable furs," Mr. Jayne says. "The fur market is showing some signs of rebound. Someday they will represent a fur source in Garrett County but that's a ways in the future."

Otters are common on both shores of the Chesapeake Bay and are present in other parts of Maryland, including along the Potomac River in Montgomery County. State officials have no population estimates.

The otters, nocturnal and primarily fish eaters, have had no trouble adapting to the fresh water of Western Maryland and Pennsylvania, Mr. Jayne says. The geographical and climatic differences are "very small," he says.

"We've had extraordinary luck with our releases," says Mr. Jayne. jTC "It's been done in a lot of states with good success, but we're right at the top of the heap."

Successful reintroduction of the otters, DNR officials say, shows improvements in the water quality in the Youghiogheny River basin. DNR officials attribute the change to water regulations and pollution controls.

"There has been an amazing comeback in the quality of water in Garrett County in the past few years," Ms. Johnston says.

Because otters primarily eat rough fish, such as carp, suckers and slower species, they should not have an impact on game fish populations, Mr. Jayne says. Fishermen, he says, have been supportive of DNR's efforts.

"There shouldn't be any conflicts between the presence of river otters on favorite streams and the success of fishing that stream," he says.

For the past two years, Pennsylvania state officials have largely funded the otter relocation program. The cooperative venture has benefited both states, says Tom Serfass, coordinator of the Pennsylvania River Otter Reintroduction Project.

Getting otters from Maryland, he says, is cheaper than from states such as New York, where otters cost about $800 each. For Maryland, the program would have been nonexistent without Pennsylvania dollars, DNR officials say.

"I think it's been very positive for both states," Mr. Serfass says. "Animals could care less about geopolitical boundaries. This is an outstanding example of how two states can cooperate and benefit wildlife."

Pennsylvania has reintroduced otters in the state's five major river basins during the past decade. The Youghiogheny River is the last.

"This is the last year of our program," Mr. Serfass says. "We've given the otter the opportunity to expand in every one of our major waterways."

This also is the last year for Maryland's program, which began in 1989, unless the state finds money or a benefactor steps forward, Mr. Jayne says.

"It doesn't look like money will be in the budget," he says, "but we're confident there's enough otters there to adequately address that area and beyond. We've done all we can. It's up to the otter now."

However, Mr. Jayne says DNR officials want to relocate otters to the Potomac River basin in Garrett and Allegany counties. That, too, is unlikely unless money becomes available. "We've made inquiries to various corporations but we haven't been successful yet," he says.

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