Otters in Yellowstone and Grand Teton

Otter Boys Play

Otter Boys Play

River otters are one of those animals that you can do all the right things–stake out the lakes they’re known to visit, drag yourself out of bed at 5 am–and still not get to see. You have to get lucky. They’re so hard to spot that when my husband and I visited Yellowstone a few weeks ago, we didn’t even really consider purposely searching for one. But, we got lucky. About 6:30 a.m. on June 21, 2010, we saw two otters rassling in Alum Creek.

They lolled around on the shore, went for a swim, wrestled in the water, splashed each other, dived under water and, best of all, seemed to really enjoy being watched. For once we didn’t have to worry about disturbing wildlife. These guys seemed to want an audience. They stared at the small crowd of wildlife watchers who’d stopped by the Hayden Valley roadside. I wondered if they thought we were all too boring, standing quietly, only occasionally gasping or giggling at their antics and our good fortune. And everyone there realized what an amazing treat they were giving us. After about a half an hour the otters swam away, probably bored with these non-playful humans.

If we had set out to look for otters, my first choice would have been the otter safari from the Yellowstone Association. The 2-day, one night trek expedition set out to look for otter scat and sign, with no guarantees of sighting the actual critters. I later talked to a ranger in the Grand Tetons who said he ran otter programs and hadn’t seen any this year. He also speculated that the two were probably bachelor boys, who are known to have lots of fun playing with females raise the young on their own.

The place people go looking for otter is Trout Lake, up in the Northeast quadrant of the park, near Silver Gate. Other wildlife watchers gave us the tip that Trout Lake is–or used to be–the go to spot for otter watching.  Trip Advisor suggests these sites for otter viewing:  Madison River (between 7 Mile Bridge and 9 Mile Hole);  the Yellowstone River near the 5-mile marker in Hayden Valley;  Trout Creek, on the banks of Soda Butte Creek, and DeLacy Creek at Shoshone Lake.

Unlike the sea ottter, which you can go look for in a few spots on the California coast, the river otter (Lontra canadensis) is much more elusive. Otter used to span all of the U.S. and Canada, but they were hurt by development and trapping.

The Yellowstone otters are facing trouble from lake trout. Otters like cutthroat trout, but as biologist Jamie R. Crait explained in the Journal of Mammology, that fish is getting squeezed out by an invasive species, lake trout. “Introduced lake trout, which inhabit deep water and are largely inaccessible to otters” (and actually eat lots of cutthroat trout) could badly impact otter populations. The Fish and Wildlife Service is already working on the problem, including running a scaled down gillnet fishing boat through Yellowstone Lake to catch the illegal immigrants.

When I’d interviewed some Yellowstone wildlife guides about their experiences, Ann Rode  of Ana’s Grand Excursions said that her favorite experience in the park was a chance encounter watching otters play in the snow. I see what she means. It was my best wildlife watching ever.

How to See More Wildlife in Yellowstone

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