Otters making a comeback
Once threatened, river otters are making a comeback and heading south on the Peninsula of their own volition. Experts say that the Coastside would offer a perfect habitat for them. Photo courtesy Carlos Porrata  

Sutro Sam’s river otter relatives are making their way south and just might make a beeline to the Coastside.

“Not yet, but I hope that that’s going to happen soon,” said the River Otter Ecology Project Executive Director Megan Isadore. 

River otters, or Lontra canadensis, were once a common sight throughout much of the state.

“Otters appear to occur wherever there is abundant food source and sufficient water for shelter and foraging areas,” reported a 1977 California Department of Fish and Game investigation on the status of river otters. They thrived, preying on rodents, birds, shellfish, turtles and insects. 

However, the fierce hunters were no match for people who trapped them for fur and for the occasional oil spill that ravaged the populations. 

They received protected status in 1961. Their numbers dropped in the San Francisco Bay Area and stayed low for decades. 

That’s beginning to change as the long-term benefits of conservation efforts kick in.

Since the River Otter Ecology Project launched in 2012, citizen scientists have counted about 2,500 river otter sightings (not to be mistaken for sea otters, which now call the area home) mostly in areas where they were previously thought to be gone forever. One river otter was as close as Crystal Springs, off Highway 92.

“Now they’re just naturally spreading their territory out and heading down the Peninsula,” Isadore said. “They’re repopulating as the bay has been cleaned up after environmental efforts in the 1970s with the (federal) clean air and water acts that paved the way for conservation projects all around San Francisco Bay.”

The fact that the river otter population is getting stronger is a sign that other sensitive parts of the ecosystem are getting healthier as well, Isadore said. Habitat has been restored, and fish and other wildlife populations rehabilitated — some of which had also been targeted for recovery and protection.

Isadore said that ideal living conditions now await the otters on the Coastside.

“The habitat down there has lots of open space and parkland, and lots of rivers that go down to the ocean. River otters are very happy to hunt in the ocean and the prey availability is bigger in the oceans than in the creeks. When they get to the ocean, they can also get water birds,” Isadore said.

Getting here could be a challenge, however. Traveling through the Santa Cruz Mountains? No problem. But highways 101 and 280 are another story. Otters on the move in other areas met their ends in fatal highway crossings.

“Many get hit,” Isadore said. “Those otters have a lot to get through to get to Half Moon Bay … Those two highways are pretty major barriers to them crossing (from the bay side).”

That doesn’t stop people from hoping river otters will make it here soon.

“I’m hoping as they go further south, they’ll go up the mountains and into the San Mateo coast. That would be fun,” Isadore said.

Sue Pemberton of the California Academy of Sciences Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy said that she believes Pescadero Creek could be a safe haven for the river otters.

“There are beavers there, so there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be otters too,” she said. 

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