Back in September local environmental, sport-fishing and naturalist circles went deservedly bonkers over a Plain Dealer article about a Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District water monitoring survey team finding a walleye fingerling 10 miles from the mouth of Lake Erie, a rarity on the heavily industrialized Cuyahoga River. Cuyahoga River Restoration's Executive Director, Jane Goodman, said "Fish are our benchmark, our canary in the coal mine".
But a couple of months later we had our own canary moment when we learned a pair of river otters had set up shop in the 33,000 acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park where the Cuyahoga River winds its way between Akron and Cleveland. How could we just be learning this top of the river food chain mammal and key indicator of a freshwater ecosystem's health can be viewed just a short hike from Cleveland or Akron? So a few weeks ago we headed down to Peninsula's Riverview Rd. between Bolanz and Ira roads. Check out what we saw just off the marsh's boardwalk:
Turns out river otters used to be plentiful across the nation but water pollution from industrial runoff pretty much wiped out the aquatic food chain, leading to a 75% spiral in river otter populations in the mid-to-late 1800's. By the late 1960's U.S. cities and their citizens realized they had to protect their waterways and, with the help of the 1972 Clean Water Act, ecosystems and habitats eventually rebounded to a point where 21 states felt conditions were right to implement river otter restoration projects.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife reintroduced river otters in 1986, releasing 123 otters relocated from Louisiana and Arkansas into 4 river systems. The project went so well that by 2012, river otter populations had swelled to over 8,000. Earliest reports had river otters finding their way into the Cuyahoga National Valley Park in August 2010 and subsequent park surveys confirmed their arrival in 2011.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park Biologist, Meg Plona, says five young (and 2 adults) were first observed in the Beaver Marsh in 2013. Beavers created the marsh after the Portage Trail Group of the Sierra Club helped clean up an auto junk yard formerly located at that site in 1984. "We don't know exactly where the adult pair at Beaver Marsh came from" says Plona "Having made a great comeback they were de-listed as a state endangered species in 2002 and presently occur throughout eastern Ohio, including their return to CVNP."
When asked about the status of the adult pair's offspring Plona added "We don't know where the offspring are or what they are up to, as they are not marked animals - young otters are self-sufficient by the time they are 5 to 6 months old, but the family group remains intact for at least 7 or 8 months or until just prior to a new litter. Yearling otters can disperse up to 20 miles or more from where they were reared." Plona says the river otters are protected like all native mammals in the park, 'however there are no "special" protections or management strategies in place for the otters at this time."
Plona notes there are optimal times to see the otters "River otter sightings at the Beaver Marsh usually occur in the very early morning when there is minimal human disturbance. In general, these mammals are also very active at dusk and throughout the night feeding on fish."
Want to marvel at the Cuyahoga River Valley's comeback? Take a trip to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and go see the river otters for yourself! Once you do, perhaps you'll consider sponsoring a Beaver Marsh acre via the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park!