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River otters returning to Michigan

Words by Smiley Team

A river otter was spotted in the Detroit River for the first time in almost 100 years, as part of a larger push to reintroduce the otters to the area. 

Eric Ste Marie, a doctoral student from the University of Windsor’s department of integrative biology, was out for a walk when he saw an otter swimming in the river on its own. He got closer and recorded it.

“I thought it was a mink or a muskrat, something I'll normally see in the river,” said Ste Marie. “But as it got closer, it was too big to be one of those.”

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North American river otters were pushed out of the area when their fur became a commodity. 

“River otters were quite common in southeast Michigan, including the Detroit River, up through the arrival of European explorers and fur traders,” Gearld P. Wykes, a historian from the Monroe County Museum System, told Great Lakes Now.

“During the fur trade era, they were much sought after for their fur, along with beaver. Based on historical records, river otters were likely extirpated from the Detroit River in the early 1900s.”

Otter reintroduction

The otter reintroduction began in 1986 when the Ohio Department of Natural Resources released otters into rivers and streams in eastern Ohio. By the 2000s they expanded into western Ohio, and by 2019 they expanded across western Lake Erie at Point Pelee National Park in Leamington, Ontario. That was the first time they were spotted there since 1918.

And now they might be making a home in the Detroit River.

“The Detroit Zoo is so excited to hear that the Detroit River is now clean enough for river otters and is committed to working with regional partners to further conservation efforts, including for river otters,” said Elizabeth Arbaugh, curator of mammals at the Detroit Zoological Society.

The otters are considered an indicator species, or a species that reflects the environmental conditions of an area, and a return might be a sign of improving environmental conditions in the river.

Inspired to act?

SUPPORT: Check out the International Otter Survival Fund. They’re an organization that works to support otters in different ecosystems around the world. 

VOLUNTEER: You can find out about volunteering opportunities at Detroit Zoo


This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

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