Otter Map Project by Gary Calkins

 

Three years ago, the tri-annual schedule showed it was time to run river otter bridge surveys in east Texas. This survey covers 27 counties across the Pineywoods ecoregion of the State. For the most part, this area is also considered the primary species range of the river otter which is why the emphasis on the surveys in this part of Texas. While that survey effort was being undertaken, three additional otter related projects were also happening. Ciel Wharton was completing a MS project at Texas A&M University dealing with measuring observers skills in identifying the sign used for the otter surveys. Jonah Evans was completing his MS Project, also at A&M, on how mis-identification of sign could bias these surveys. Also occurring, I was just starting my MS project at Stephen F. Austin on how to improve the survey technique itself.

With all of this activity on otters at once, the species started getting some renewed attention. One of the first that wanted some more information was Cecilia Nasti with the Passport to Texas Radio program. Cecilia wanted to do a Passport to Texas segment on otters and find out what all the fuss was about; I think that segment actually started the fuss. Shortly after that segment aired, Cecilia started receiving emails from several locales indicating that they had seen otters. As she received those messages, Cecilia would forward them to me and I began plotting the locations on a map; initially just for fun to see where folks were seeing these animals. The sightings continued to roll in and it was obvious that folks out there were interested in this critter based on the response to that one segment.

A year later Cecilia decided to run a follow-up Passport to Texas segment and ask for sightings to be sent in to be placed on the map. At the same time, Tom Harvey with the Parks and Wildlife Communications team also released a press release along the same lines. Wow; the response was immediate. Not only were we getting responses from the public, but several other outdoor writers ran stories on otters and then the responses really started rolling in. It has been an interesting task to read all of the sighting information sent in, try to verify the location, read the stories and see some fantastic photographs that folks have taken of otters and sent in. As the reports kept coming, the map database continued to grow; as it still does today.

I can't think of a week that has gone by since that second Passport to Texas segment ran that there hasn't been at least one email with an otter story to tell; often it is 2 or 3 a day. Each of the responses has a story to tell, most of which are excited or interested and some that fear that they will lose every fish in their pond, but each has something to share.

As folks shared those stories, I have also learned a lot; not only about where folks have seen otters, but how passionate folks are for our wildlife resources. Whether the concern was how many fish those critters were eating or sharing a great photograph the passion came through on nearly every communication. That is one thing that has really struck me about this whole process and a part of it I have sincerely enjoyed.

But now down to some of the interesting details; where those sightings have come from, and it is far and wide across the State. To date, I have been able to get enough information to plot the location of 203 different sightings on the map from these reports. In some instances I will receive several reports from a given lake such as Lake Conroe and in those instances I have combined all of the sightings into one record since there is no way to determine if folks saw many different animals or just one animal making the rounds. As the sightings started coming in, most were in places that otters were expected to be, but as the word spread about sending sightings in, so did the variety of places that the animals showed up. At first, when a sighting is received in a location that is unexpected, it is hard not to be a bit skeptical; which was the case in some of the first unusual sightings. But it didn't take too many pictures to convince me that skepticism has a place in some respects, but not in regards to this project.

As the map currently stands, 30 to 40 percent of the sightings are west of the I45 corridor and nearly 10 percent of the locations falling west of the I35 corridor. There are a dozen sightings right in the Austin area, one just north of San Antonio, and the interesting outlier about half way between Gainesville and Wichita Falls. The sightings in the eastern portion of the state are fairly evenly distributed across the landscape which leads one to the conclusion that there are otters in most of the larger waterways across this area.

Historically, otters were considered to be located in the eastern two-thirds of the state and up into portions of the Panhandle. Due to hunting and the fur market, by the 1960's they were considered to be restricted only to the Neches and Trinity River basins. If the dots on the map over the past two years are indicative of anything, otters are moving back into old familiar haunts and may be moving into a creek near you. Enjoy one of our truly unique native species!

Gary Calkins is the District Leader for wildlife in the Piney Woods area for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He offices out of Jasper.

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