The warm New Mexico sun was beating down on us as we hiked along the bright green, grassy banks of the Rio Grande and scrambled over giant jet-black volcanic rocks. We were within a few minutes of our destination when a golden eagle let out an ear-piercing screech behind us, bringing us to an abrupt halt. With necks arched, we watched as the humongous bird flew up the Rio Grande gorge, over our heads, and then down and into the rock cliff of the gorge just downstream of us. Jaws agape, we stared at its landing place on the cliff as it settled in and we could no longer discern the eagle from the rocks.
We quietly took a few more steps toward our destination, when three river otter heads suddenly popped out of the water right in front of us. Stopped dead in our tracks again, we stared. They looked inquisitively at us, their heads tilting and whiskers twitching as they sniffed the air in our direction. Then, as if a decision had been made, one otter took one more sniff and dove back under water, quickly followed by the other two.
Both moments felt so fleeting at the time but now, years later, that experience has been burned in my memory forever. Our destination was a river otter latrine site where I had placed a trail camera. The three river otters we saw were probably either finishing up a visit to the latrine site or about to visit it when we ruined their plans! While I had already hiked to that camera several times, I had never been graced with the opportunity to see the otters in the wild. It has now been almost three years since and I have only ever seen them again in the photos I collect from the trail cameras. There are now five trail cameras out in Taos County, supplying an abundance of beautiful wildlife photos from along the Rio Grande, the Red River and the Rio Fernando de Taos.
From the 1950s until 2008, river otters were no longer a part of the Rio Grande ecosystem. Hunting and trapping extirpated them from New Mexico and many other states across the country. In 2008, a reintroduction program was devised by a coalition called New Mexico Friends of River Otters. Since 1976, 21 states have successfully reintroduced river otters. For more information on River Otter reintroduction in New Mexico, you can visit www.amigosbravos.org/native-species.
Amigos Bravos has been monitoring the success of reintroduced river otters since 2016. While mark-recapture is not necessary, there is a genetic study currently being completed through the Share with Wildlife Program at the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish. This study will estimate the population of river otters in the area and offer detailed information on the genetic diversity of New Mexico’s river otters.
Today, hundreds of river otters are happily romping in the Rio Grande, eating invasive crayfish, surprising visitors and restoring the Rio Grande ecosystem, one fish at a time.
Wildlife “captured” on these cameras since 2016 includes all the species in this gallery as well as squirrels, least chipmunks and skunks.