The Improbable Comeback of River Otter in Northwest Colorado

Photo: CPW
Photo: Colorado Parks & Wildlife

Once upon a time, river otters could be found in nearly every significant river drainage throughout Colorado.  But habitat loss and degradation, overtrapping, and water quality issues decimated otter populations, culminating in 1906 when the last known native river otter in the state was killed on a stretch of the Yampa River.  From that point on, otters were locally extinct in a state where they once thrived.

Decades later, the elusive mammals are making a remarkable comeback in the Intermountain West.  In the late 1980s, a number of river otters were successfully reintroduced into the Green River just outside of Dinosaur National Monument near the Utah-Colorado border.  Many of them branched off and slowly found their way east, where some of the otters returned to their historic range in Yampa River basin.  The Yampa River – one of the West’s last relatively free-flowing water bodies – has an abundant supply of fish which the otters rely on for sustenance.

Click play on the video below (courtesy: National Geographic) to see river otters in action.

While otter sightings along the Yampa are still relatively rare (they are hard to spot even with a trained eye), the solitary semi-aquatic creatures have been documented on at least two YVLT-conserved properties in Routt County: Lake Catamount, south of Steamboat Springs and the Carpenter Ranch, located just east of Hayden.  Many more of YVLT’s conservation easements preserve potential habitat for otter along the Yampa River, helping to ensure that otters have the resources they need to secure a foothold in this region and achieve a self-sustaining population.  Their miraculous recovery in this area – along with that of bald eagles, Peregrine falcons and bighorn sheep – is attributable in part to private land conservation efforts along key river corridors.

With river otters on the rebound in Colorado, it is possible the species will be removed from the “State Threatened” list and downgraded to a “Species of State Special Concern” by Colorado Parks and Wildlife experts in the future. 

YVLT is thrilled to have these wonderful creatures back in Northwest Colorado!