With their thick, glistening manes, proclivity for play, and taste for crawfish, members of a growing southeastern species are flocking to Texas. And no, we’re not talking about recent graduates of Louisiana State University. North American river otters, which were scarce in the Lone Star State for most of the last century, are on the rebound.
A recent spate of otter sightings along Texas waterways, including in downtown Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, tracks with what the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has known for a while, says Diana Foss, an urban biologist with the agency: otters are making a comeback across the state.
Exact numbers are hard to come by—in part because the creatures are so elusive, and in part because the populations have been doing so well that TPWD no longer conducts otter surveys regularly.
“We have finite resources regarding biologists’ availability, so we try and tackle the rarer species,” Foss says. “In the next ten or twenty years, I’m anticipating that more people will see river otters in the wild or in their backyards, depending on where they live.”
If you are lucky enough to spot a river otter, odds are it’s a juvenile, according to Foss. They seem to be more adventurous than the adults and are willing to venture many miles to expand their territories. “It’s usually the young ones who are trying to find their own place in the world,” Foss says. “They’re like pioneers, moving westward.”
River otters were once among the most common mammals across North America, but extensive hunting and trapping decimated their numbers by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Prized for their chocolaty brown coats—which are waterproof, warm, and incredibly soft—millions of the animals ended up as hats or mittens. They were especially prevalent in East Texas rivers and in the Houston area. Otters also likely once roamed other corners of the state, including the Panhandle and South Texas. Still, until about a decade ago, TPWD researchers believed that the species’s population in the state was limited to the Piney Woods of East Texas.
But over time, as states placed stricter limits on hunting and trapping and as otter pelts became far less fashionable, Foss says that otter populations have grown. (Hunting otters is legal in Texas, but a special license is required if you want to profit from the activity.) For at least a decade, TPWD listed Lontra canadensis as a “species of greatest conservation need,” a step down from a federal listing under the Endangered Species Act; that designation was recently removed.
Enthusiasts have posted more than 250 verified Texas sightings of the species on popular nature and conservation site iNaturalist.org in the last two years. And Foss says TPWD now believes otters and their pups inhabit “every river system in East Texas,” all the way west to Seguin, with word-of-mouth sightings even cropping up in San Antonio.
A video of the frisky critter taking a dip in a suburban Texas swimming pool was all over the internet in 2019. And a September post from Fairfield Lake State Park, southeast of Dallas, shows three otters squeaking as they munch on mudbugs—their favorite delicacy. Otters are familial critters, known for their obsession with play; families often frolic and splash together, pups and adults alike exuding cheerful, carefree attitudes. But they can also wield their sharp teeth and claws when threatened.
“Play is very important to otters, but they are ready to do some damage. When it comes down to it, they’re a carnivore,” says Brooks.
Still, their cuteness is hardly contested—especially from a distance (and on social media). Perhaps the most viral spottings occurred last month, when a pair (or pairs) of the species was seen on two different occasions near downtown Houston, swimming in Buffalo Bayou Park’s urban waterway shortly after Tropical Storm Nicholas made landfall.
David Armendariz and his husband were jogging along the bayou when they spotted the two otters swimming and diving in the muddy brown water. “I thought they were rats at first,” he told the Houston Chronicle. Armendariz’s Instagram video drew hundreds of comments. Five days later, the bayou otters popped up again: local photographer Christine Wilson filmed a video of the duo while walking with her five-year-old grandson.
“I saw what looked like a deep brown tail of a fish. I got excited as my grandson was there and then a small head popped up, and I knew. We had an otter,” she says.
Wilson had seen jumping fish, herons, egrets, and even a snapping turtle on the bayou. But never an otter before or since. One swam to the right, and from the bank across the way its curious companion splashed in to meet it in the middle of the murky brown waters. The video shows the pair leisurely paddling together, looking like nothing so much as a married couple out for a morning stroll.
“I’ve lived here forty-seven years, and this is the first time I ever knew [otters] to be inside the city limits,” says Dan Brooks, curator of vertebrate zoology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and founder of the Houston Urban Wildlife Project. He spends much of his time researching birds and bats along Buffalo Bayou.
Otters seek calm, quiet territory where they can create dens near the water’s edge, Brooks says. They’re looking for clean, fresh water—which is not exactly Buffalo Bayou’s claim to fame, though efforts are underway to change that. They avoid noise pollution and often get confused by roadways (including Allen Parkway, Memorial Drive, and Interstate 10, which border the park’s green space) and car lights that leave them disoriented. They are often struck by cars, says Brooks—and sightings of their carcasses listed on iNaturalist sadly confirm that. Spotting them alive and well in an urban setting is still a rare treat.
Also, Brooks adds, it’s extremely rare to see an otter in the same area twice, so if you go looking for them, it’s best to keep your expectations low.
“They move around quite a bit,” he says. “With some birds or a beaver dam, people will see it and say, ‘Go check this out’ and you can see it. Otters are not that way.”
His prediction? “I am ninety-eight percent sure that [Tropical Storm Nicholas] played a role in seeing them where we saw them,” he says. Flash flooding could have whisked the otters away from their less densely populated home upstream around Katy, where Buffalo Bayou begins. Strong winds can potentially pick up small animals, he says, or at least leave them disoriented.
“Them just getting thrown off course and confused is probably the most likely explanation,” he says.
Foss, however, thinks the downtown sightings are a hopeful response to activists’ efforts to improve urban habitat for wildlife in Texas, and particularly in the Bayou City.
“In the past Buffalo Bayou’s been kind of a forgotten, polluted bayou,” she says. “It goes through the heart of Houston, and people have been working really hard to bring the water quality back up to good standards, preserve the habitat along the bayou, and plant more riparian zone, which is what the otters use.”
As habitats continue to improve for native species—not only along Buffalo Bayou, but also along greenbelts and even power easements through the state—Foss expects Texans will encounter more and more otters as they continue expanding their territory westward or as they lay down roots in new homes.
“It’s a natural event,” she says. “And hopefully it continues. We’re starting to see other wildlife come back to the bayou, too.”
Where to See River Otters in Texas
River otters are elusive, but not impossible to find. Patience and low expectations are key. Nature lovers and wildlife trackers have spotted North American river otters in these areas in the last few years, according to sightings posted on iNaturalist.org.
Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, southwest of Port Arthur
Bayside Regional Park, in Bacliff
Davy Crockett National Forest, west of Lufkin
Fairfield Lake State Park, in Fairfield
Honey Creek State Natural Area, in Spring Branch
Lake Houston, northeast of Houston
Lewisville Lake, west of Frisco