Windsor man spots otter in Detroit River, believed to be first in a century

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News
University of Windsor student Eric Ste Marie spotted a river otter in the Detroit River near the Ambassador Bridge on April 26, 2022. Local experts say it is the first otter sighting on the river in a century.

Eric Ste Marie was taking a normal morning walk until he noticed something furry bobbing its way toward the Ambassador Bridge. 

Ste Marie, a 27-year-old University of Windsor doctoral student, is a curious outdoorsman. He sprinted to follow the creature along the Ontario shoreline and nabbed a video of its lanky body diving into the Detroit River.

The critter was too large to be a common muskrat or mink. Its long tail was tapered, not flat like a beaver's.

That's when Ste Marie and his partner, who had encouraged the April 26 excursion, realized what they had seen — a river otter, a species experts say was driven out of the Detroit area a century ago by pollution, urbanization and overzealous trappers.

"I was so excited," Ste Marie said. "My partner and I were just giddy that we were seeing this otter, but we didn't think it was going to be as big of a deal as it ended up being." 

Ste Marie's video is the first documentation of a river otter in the Detroit River in a century, said John Hartig, a Detroit Riverfront Conservancy board member and former manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Hartig wrote about Ste Marie's discovery for the public television program Great Lakes Now

River otters were extirpated, or made regionally extinct, from the Detroit area in the early 1900s after a century of heavy hunting and trapping, he said. 

"I talked to a historian from the Monroe County Historical Museum and he said the last report they had for this region, the Detroit River and western Lake Erie, was in the early 1900s," Hartig said. "They were gone, and they were gone for a long time."

It is a "thrill" that one has returned, he said. 

"It's really cool," he said. "It's heartening. It's evidence that our pollution control and pollution prevention programs are working. But we're not done — there are some big challenges ahead of us," such as climate change and polluted runoff.

Unlike in other Midwestern states, otter populations have held strong in central and northern Michigan, said Adam Bump, Michigan Department of Natural Resources furbearer specialist. Michigan has otter trapping seasons throughout the state.

Still, the critters are slowly making their way into the Detroit area as water quality improves. 

People have reported seeing otters in northern Monroe County, southern Wayne County and Lenawee County, Bump said, but he is not aware of any sightings on the Detroit River itself in recent history. And certainly no pictures. 

Otters are in the mustelid family with other tube-shaped mammals like weasels and mink. They spend most of their time in lakes and rivers eating aquatic animals like crayfish and fish. They grow 3-4 feet long, are fast and flexible, and have clawed feet.

Miles the River Otter celebrated his fifth birthday with a special ice cake covered with raw fish at Lansing's Potter Park Zoo, on Monday, Feb 19, 2018. The "birthday cake" contained three kinds of fish and sea shells with peanut butter inside.

They are exceptional hunters, which gives them the time to be exceptionally playful.

"They're so good at being predators of aquatic species that they have time to do other things," Bump said. "They don't have to focus all their energy and time on gathering food like other species do."

The availability of prey appears to be the main thing that draws otters to a stream, Bump said. They also like streams with good water quality and nearby land habitat where they can make dens.

Those conditions are returning to the Detroit River, which suffered "dramatic change" in the last three centuries after settlers arrived and ushered in eras of logging, manufacturing, urbanization and pollution. 

"Now, the water quality's better, you have forested areas, you have conditions that are suitable for otter," Bump said. "It just takes a while for the populations to be able to expand, and once they expand it takes a while at that point for them to be abundant enough for people to actually see them."

Ste Marie's discovery of an otter is a sign the critters might someday be commonplace. If that otter has a mate, they might have babies that are used to living in an urban area. And those babies might grow up to not be so wary of two-legged onlookers.

"I think their ability to learn and adapt to human presence increases," Bump said. "They start becoming more willing to go into urbanized areas, more willing to be seen going down a river, and understand that 'as long as people are just standing there watching me I don't have to worry about them.' You see that progression, and I think it's probably a learned behavior."

Ste Marie, who spotted the otter last week, said he hopes other people who visit the Detroit River keep a lookout for otters. Sightings of rare critters help wildlife ecologists understand their current range, he said.

"I'm never going to not look for otters when I'm walking along the river," Ste Marie said. "I think it's a really good sign that the area and the local ecosystem is healing, that we see an animal like an otter which usually is quite sensitive.

"It means the Detroit River is probably getting cleaner and efforts from local conservation groups in the Detroit and Windsor area are being effective. I hope we'll see more otters and other animals that we don't see here anymore but traditionally were in these waters."