What Do The Economies Of China And Russia Have To Do With Otter Sightings In Central Texas?

Oct 8, 2020

River otters have been making a comeback in Central Texas for the past few years. But this past summer, otters were spotted where they typically haven’t been seen before: in the San Marcos River.

Once only common to East Texas, the playful mammal has been expanding its range westward, Jonah Evans, a mammalogist for Texas Parks and Wildlife, said. Evans oversees all the non-game mammal research and conservation efforts in the state. That includes bats and anything from a coyote to a mouse.

“We're seeing more river otters turning up and places where they haven't been in a long time,” Evans said. “They seem to be being seen more often and they have made somewhat of a comeback in Texas.”

In a Facebook video posted on the San Marcos River Foundation page, what looks like a river otter pokes its head out of the water, swimming around before diving back and under an onlooking kayaker.

Evans watched the video, which was posted in July, to make sure it was a river otter and not a beaver or nutria, which are both found in the area.

“Totally otter in that one,” he said. “Yeah, the way he sticks his head up and out of the water and shakes it. Oh, it's like right under, it goes right under his boat. So cool.”

Many commenters on similar posts wondered if the increased number of otter sightings had anything to do with COVID-19. Since the City of San Marcos shut down all public access to the river in late June, many suggested fewer people on the river meant more otters were coming out to play.

“I think it's unlikely to be related to COVID and more likely to be related to the fur prices going down,” Evans said.

The Price Of Fur

Animal trapping is legal in Texas. Trappers need a special license to take fur-bearing animals, or their pelts, and put them up for sale. But the number of licenses has been steadily decreasing since 2015, when there were about 3,000 active licenses in the state. In 2019, that number was about 2,000. 

“There's far fewer people trapping now than there used to be,” Evans said.

It turns out the demand and the price for a single pelt of otter fur has plummeted in the past few years. Ten to 20 years ago, the price for a pelt was upwards of $200.

Evans said the prices were so high because of a demand for black, fur-lined hats used by the Chinese military. China and Russia were some of the biggest buyers of wild fur in Texas, according to wildlife trapper Dan Hepker.

Now, “with their [economies] cratering, the demand has been a lot lower,” Hepker said.

When the demand and the prices started going down, mink farmers stepped in. Mink and otters look similar, but mink fur is cheaper and easier to work with. Plus, farmers can raise mink to grow at pretty consistent sizes.

“A lot of manufacturers switched over to these ranch minks,” Hepker said.

"When otters find a good food source, they will stay there and just eat and eat and eat and eat and eat. And otters can digest their food and pass it through in a little over an hour. So they're little eating machines."

According to a trapping blog post from 2019, a female mink fur went for around $5, and male fur went for $8 to $10. For the past few seasons, otter fur has consistently gone for about $20 to $30 per pelt.

Hepker has been trapping in Central Texas for more than 50 years. Today, he runs a business responding to nuisance control calls for predators on private homes and ranches.

“Up until just a few years ago, I didn't have a lot of experience with otters,” he said. “But just in the last three years, the complaints coming in on otters are just constant. And I love it. I mean, I just think otters are absolute neat [animals].”

But it's safe to say Hepker has a more nuanced perspective on these critters.

“I call them the wolves of the waterway,” he said. “I mean, they are like a pack of wolves. Once they get in the water ... whatever they're after, they're going to get.”

Now that they’re being trapped less and their population is growing, otters have become kind of a nuisance to some property owners. Hepker said he got a call once that something was getting into a client's koi fishpond and eating everything. When he showed up and saw all that was left were fish heads, he knew it was an otter.

“When otters find a good food source, they will stay there and just eat and eat and eat and eat and eat,” he said. “And otters can digest their food and pass it through in a little over an hour. So they're little eating machines.”

Ultimately, Hepker attributes their growth to three major factors: less demand for their fur, several wet years with heavy rainfall that made creeks more abundant – and easier for otters to get around – and the fact that a healthy female can have three to five pups a year.

Citizen Trackers

Evans encourages people to try to document otter sightings using an app called iNaturalist. It’s basically a social network for citizen scientists and biologists to upload sightings of wildlife. In one photo, documented just east of San Marcos, a couple otters run through a field. In another, four to five otters poke their heads out of the water on a ranch outside Wimberley.

He said the app has turned out to be a hugely beneficial tool for biologists like himself.

“We just don't have the money and the staff to conduct a statewide river otter survey,” Evans said. “There's no way for us to pull that off. Yet with iNaturalist now, I can look at a map of the state and I can see where otters have been seen in the last couple years.”

River parks in San Marcos reopened in late September. So whether you think they're a nuisance or just really cute, next time you’re out on the river, keep an eye out for an otter.

Got a tip? Email Riane Roldan at rroldan@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter@RianeRoldan.

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