An otterly fascinating returnWildlife management's efforts to reintroduce river otters to Ohio proves successful in region

Tony Everhardt was checking the security cameras around his house when he saw an unusual animal run across his front yard. 

As an avid wildlife watcher and photographer, Everhardt recognized the quick and sleek animal was a river otter

He was dumbfounded. 

“It was crazy,” Everhardt says of the sighting that happened about 5 years ago on his lawn near Walbridge, a town about 54 miles west of Sandusky. “That was unbelievable. I’ve lived on that street since 1975 and never saw one there before.”

That was Everhardt’s first otter sighting, and he believes the otter came from a series of ditches or a nearby pond. In the years since, he has seen river otters regularly – about once a month - at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge outside Oak Harbor. 

Ottawa National is one of the best places to see them in the region, although they have been spotted in areas around Sandusky and Erie counties, as well. After being driven out of Ohio in the early 1900s, they have made a remarkable comeback, and their numbers continue to rise. 

Otters' tails are important for use in swimming. (Photo/Tony Everhardt) “They’re one of my favorites because some people go their whole lifetime without seeing one,” Everhardt says. “They’re right at the top of my list.”

The elusive species has captured the imagination of Everhardt and others who have been fortunate enough to see them, as well as those who are hoping to still catch a glimpse of one in the wild. 

“They do seem kind of playful, and I think that’s always something that people kind of gravitate to,” says Katie Dennison, Wildlife Biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. “They’re fun to watch, and they’re really cute.”

Otters are grayish-brown mammals with long, stiff whiskers, large, webbed feet, and a long tail that usually makes up about half its body length.

Over harvesting the otters for their fur, pollution, and habitat loss, in part from the channelization of rivers, all combined to push the otter out of Ohio. They prefer living in forested wetlands next to rivers and streams, and they eat fish and other aquatic critters, such as frogs, snakes, and insects.

As pollution killed off their food supply and development changed and destroyed habitat, the otters were extirpated from sizable portions of their range, which includes most of the central United States. 

In 1986, the Ohio Division of Wildlife started reintroducing river otters to Ohio. During the seven-year project, wildlife staff released 123 otters captured in Arkansas and Louisiana and released in eastern Ohio in the Grand River, Killbuck Creek, Little Muskingum River, and Stillwater Creek watersheds. 

The elusive species has captured the imagination of Everhardt and others who have been fortunate enough to see them, as well as those who are hoping to still catch a glimpse of one in the wild. (Photo/Tony Everhardt)Those areas remain the parts of Ohio that have the most abundance of otters. 

“There are lots of forested wetlands in those areas,” Dennison says. “There are also the rivers, at least largely have remained in their natural state, at least not channelized, and forested corridor on the sites that provide that important cover.”

As the otter population has expanded, the species has moved into other parts of Ohio. Additionally, other states have successfully reintroduced otters, so some could also be coming into Ohio from those programs, she says. 

 “They’re really kind of a wildlife management success story,” she says. “They are one where wildlife agencies really did intervene with all of those reintroductions. Not all wildlife does well with reintroduction, but otters seem to do well with adjusting to it.”

The otter’s recovery is a great story of how interventions to help wildlife on several fronts can come together for success.

“The Clean Water Act is so separate from wildlife management, but in my mind there’s no doubt that helped the otter because it helped the fish,” Dennison says.

Today, ODNR has confirmed otters in 83 of Ohio’s 88 counties. The otter has recovered so well that since 2005, the state has allowed some trapping of otters

ODNR no longer uses tracking devices on otters and instead goes out and looks for tracks and completes an annual otter population survey.

“We’re really just looking for presence or absence,” Dennison says. “We have a large number of sites. We have 422 sites across the state that we survey every year. For each year, we have how many sites we observed signs at versus what we didn’t. 

“So far, we’ve been seeing a steady increase as the population is kind of expanding and growing.”

Locally, otters have been spotted at Pickerell Creek Wildlife Area near Vickery in Sandusky County, Dennison says. They also have been confirmed in the Maumee River and its tributaries and have been trapped in Defiance, located in Northwest Ohio near the Indiana state line. 

Otters are playful, and evidence of them sliding on snow and ice can often be found in areas where they are known to live. (Photo/Tony Everhardt)Although there have not been confirmed sightings at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area near Oak Harbor, which borders Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Dennison says she would expect they are there. Everhardt says he has seen signs of otters at Magee. 

Otters likely could be found in any large wetland area in the Sandusky region.

“I think any of those coastal wetlands would be a great area for otters,” she says.

Everhardt and Jeff Vogelpohl of Elmore are among the wildlife watchers who hike at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and see them there regularly. 

Everhardt has spotted them at the bridge on the wildlife drive, as well as at different spots throughout the refuge. Vogelpohl often sees them in the canal along the western side of the walking trails near the north woods. The canal goes out to the estuary. 

“They’re quick,” Vogelpohl says. “When I come up upon them, I hear splashing water and I’m usually pretty sure it’s an otter. Pretty soon they’ll pop their head up and look at you. Sometimes they’ll just ignore you. Sometimes they disappear, and you don’t know where they went.”

They also can be spotted on the drive or by hiking around the refuge dikes. Seeing them requires being quiet and patient. Sometimes a lone otter will pop up, and other times, there will be a group or family.

“Sometimes you can hear them bark or squeak,” Everhardt says. “They’re fun to watch. They’re like little kids. They’re kind of wrestling around and playing around in the water.”

One of Vogelpohl’s favorite sightings was of a mother and a young otter. 

“The younger one swam away, about 50 yards away from mom, she started squawking at him, telling him to get back,” he says. “Eventually he swam back, and they disappeared.”

Near sunrise is usually the best time to see them, although Vogelpohl has been fortunate to see them at other times of the day, as well. 

“They’re pretty cryptic,” Dennison says. “They’re not necessarily going to stay around if a lot of people are showing up or if there’s a lot of noise.”

To see updates on the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge otters and more photos by Vogelpohl and Everhardt, visit

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