Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
More than a dozen years ago, when the idea of reintroducing river otters to New Mexico waters was being discussed, Taylor Streit, renowned state fly-fishing guide, was OK with it.
But now, he’s having second thoughts. He thinks otters are eating most of the fish in one of the state’s best stretches of trout-fishing water.
“They are decimating the trout on the lower Red River,” Streit said. “The lower Red River is our winter go-to spot, but we are not going there because no one is catching the fish. We have to go to Abiquiu.”
The lower Red River is that three to four miles of the Red from its junction with the Rio Grande upstream to the Red River State Fish Hatchery. The hatchery, which produces rainbow trout for stocking waters statewide, is several miles southwest of Questa.
Eric Frey, sport fish program manager for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, said he does not think Streit’s alarm about the otters’ impact on fish in the lower Red is warranted.
“We have heard concerns since 2014 when the otters showed up on the lower Red River,” Frey said. “But we have a survey site about a half mile below the hatchery and one just above the hatchery. We have done multiple fish population surveys and based on those surveys there are very healthy fish populations of all kinds in the river.”
Streit, a member of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, makes a living leading clients to rivers and streams to catch trout. And otters eat fish, including trout.
But in 2005, when the notion of reintroducing otters to New Mexico was being explored, Streit talked to guides in Colorado and Utah, where the animal had already been reintroduced, and they told him otters had not made a big difference in fish populations in the waters they worked. Besides, those guides advised Streit, their clients enjoyed seeing the furry, whiskered mammals. Otters are pretty darn cute.
“I did think (reintroducing otters) was a good idea,” Streit said recently during an interview at an Albuquerque restaurant. “I was on board to do that. I had otter fever – just like everyone else.”
New Mexico was one of about 20 states that lost their river otter populations decades ago because of unregulated trapping and habitat decline, and New Mexico was the last of these states to bring the critters back.
Thirty-three otters were released in the upper Rio Grande between 2008 and 2010. The state does not permit the hunting or trapping of these otters, which are now thriving in New Mexico’s northern waterways.
No one is sure just how many there are.
“It is very hard to tell how many because the individual animals move around a lot,” said Jim Stuart, non-game mammal specialist for the Department of Game and Fish. “But they have been seen all the way from the Colorado state line to Cochiti Lake, so probably more than 33.”
Stuart said the department has contracted with the University of Kentucky to do an otter survey based on the study of the animals’ scat (droppings). The survey, which started a couple of months ago, will help determine, among other things, the number of otters and just what they are eating.
Knowing the score
Frey said the most recent Red River fish survey below the hatchery was in 2015 and the most recent above in 2016.
“But the otters were present before the last surveys we did,” he said. “And we are going back in September to do another survey.”
He concedes the possibility that the otter population has done so well since the last survey that it has become a problem for fish and fishermen on the lower Red, but he does not think so.
“There are no absolutes in wildlife management,” Frey said. “But in all surveys of Western rivers where otters are present – the upper Colorado, the upper Green River in Wyoming, the Yellowstone River in Montana – there have been healthy trout populations.”
Streit counters by noting that the lower Red River is the best spawning area for brown trout in late fall and for rainbow trout in midwinter, but based on observations made by him and guides who work for him there was no spawning run last year.
“It’s kind of important to consider that my guides are on the river every day,” Streit said. “When you are making a living on the river, you pretty much know the score.
“We don’t want to get rid of the otters. We just want them out of that stretch of river.”
Toner Mitchell of Trout Unlimited, the cold-water fish conservation organization, shares Streit’s concerns.
Mitchell said he is accustomed to seeing 50 to 100 obvious spawning nests on the lower Red from November through February, but the last time he was there, in early February, he saw one.
Trout prepare spawning nests by using their fins to sweep river gravel clean, creating bright, oblong areas 2 to 4 feet long and 1 to 2 feet wide.
“Down in the gorge (below the hatchery), we are not getting as many or as large fish as we are used to,” said Mitchell, Trout Unlimited’s water and habitat program manager and public lands coordinator in New Mexico. “I love otters, but the evidence against them is pretty strong. The otter is a prime suspect with a motive and no alibi. But I do want to see what the Game and Fish Department finds out. If it’s not the otters, we need to find out what’s going on.”
Before otters got to the lower Red River, previous damage to the fish population there had been blamed by some, including Streit, on toxic spillages from a company east of Questa that mined molybdenum, a metal used in high-strength, lightweight alloys, and also attributed by some to acidic runoffs from huge, naturally occurring thermal scars on the adjacent terrain.
But no one denies that otter eat fish.
“Our original assumption was that otters would be feeding mostly on non-native fish – white suckers, carp, even crayfish – which are found in the warmer waters of the main-stem Rio Grande and are easier to catch than trout,” Stuart said. “We did not know to what extent the otter would distribute throughout the Rio Grande drainage.” He said Game and Fish realized that if otters moved into higher, colder streams such as the lower Red River, the animal would feed on more trout.
“Otters eat what is available and the Red River is predominantly a trout fishery,” Stuart said.
Frey said that before it was fenced off, otter got into a show pond at the Red River hatchery and ate some of the trout kept there. And Stuart said a few years ago there was a report of otter eating koi in a private pond in Taos.
“Otter are going to eat a few fish,” Frey said. “But we still don’t think otters have eaten all the fish in the (Red) River. And we don’t have any evidence that otters have destroyed (spawning) in any way. I think we will see juvenile fish when we do the survey this year.”