River otter San Juan

A river otter swims through a Colorado river reflecting the fall colors along its banks.

By: Dawn Wilson

This week’s featured animal is the North American river otter. Although I have never been lucky enough to spot one in Estes Valley or Rocky Mountain National Park, I have heard reports of people seeing them in the park’s rivers and in St. Vrain Creek. River otters are threatened in Colorado and are a rare sighting. For all of my own searching, I have only spotted a few throughout the state. Check out these additional fun facts about this playful mammal.

River Otter

A river otter gives a big stretch, which shows the webbed feet, after a long nap near a mountain lake.

1. River otters are a member of the Mustelidae family, carnivorous mammals that have long bodies, short legs and a musky scent gland under the tail. The family also includes wolverines, badgers, ferrets, minks, martens and weasels.

River Otter

River otters are playful animals, particularly in winter when they can be seen sliding along the frozen water of rivers and lakes.

2. After being wiped out in Colorado due to habitat loss, trapping for their fur, and poor-quality ecosystems, Colorado Parks and Wildlife started a river otter reintroduction program in 1976 on Colorado’s Western Slope, including in Rocky Mountain National Park. About 120 river otters were reintroduced to Colorado through this program.

River Otter Hyder

A river otter got curious about people along the bank while swimming through a river on a gray, cloudy day.

3. River otters have several unique features that make them well adapted for their semi-aquatic living. These include: thick fur for staying warm in cold water; a long, narrow body for ease of movement in water; a long, strong tail that acts like a rudder; ability to stay under water for up to eight minutes; and webbed feet.

River Otter

A river otter rests in a river after searching for his favorite meal of fish.

4. Although river otters are designed for life in the water, they can run up to 15 miles per hour on land.

5. River otters are a “sentinel species, ” meaning their presence, or lack of, indicate the health of an ecosystem.

Dawn Wilson is a professional and award-winning nature photographer who lives in Estes Park year-round. You can see more of her work, join one of her Rocky tours, and purchase prints and calendars at DawnWilsonPhotography.com or follow her on Instagram: @dawnwilsonphoto.

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