Two river otters, a species thought by many to be absent in Lake Tahoe, have been spotted near the Tahoe Keys community in the South Shore.
Very few records of otters in the basin exist, and the limited amounts that do are old, according to the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
However, South Lake Tahoe resident Bettina McIntyre said she’s been lucky enough to observe a pair of the animals over the last couple years. They’ve been swimming, splashing and sliding in a lagoon near her Tahoe Keys home.
“A lot of people don’t know they live up here,” McIntyre said, adding. “I think they’re kind of cute.”
Otters have been known to exist in Lake Tahoe for many decades, although at one point the population was down to occurring only at Marlette Lake, according to Shay Zanetti, fish and wildlife biologist for LTBMU.
Since then, they have been detected at Fallen Leaf Lake, the Bijou area of Lake Tahoe and Secret Harbor — in addition to the recent sighting in the Keys.
“Very little is known about our otter population,” Zanetti said in an email. “It has never been studied as far as I know, but appears to have never been abundant.”
With so few otters in the area, many locals have thought the animals to be nonexistent in the area. But the lack of sightings could reflect on the fact that otters are primarily nocturnal and likely avoid areas with human activity she said.
Avoiding human contact may also be why McIntyre typically only sees her elusive neighbors during the spring.
“They seem to disappear,” she said. “It probably gets too active in the marina during summer.”
Otters are carnivores that feed on a variety of animals, including fish, snakes, birds, frogs, crawfish and other crustaceans. While limited data is available, Cheryl Millham, executive director and co-founder of Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, Inc., believes the otters aren’t harmful to the lake or native wildlife, and could actually help remove invasive species from the water.
Mostly, all the otters want to do is play, Millham said, adding, “They are the clowns of the wildlife world.”
Humans, along with their canine pets, were probably the biggest factor in driving otters out of the basin, according to Millham.
Sightings were common when she opened the care center about 36 years ago. However, the population since then seems to have declined significantly. She attributes this, in part, to dogs chasing the otters and killing them.
“They live here if people just take care of their dogs and don’t harass them when they see them,” she said.
Millham doesn’t hear of otter sightings anymore at Lake Tahoe, not since McIntyre sent her a picture of one a few years ago. Before that, it had been 25 years since she heard of a sighting, when a motorist struck and killed one on Pioneer Trail.
Now, Millham said the best thing people can do when they see an otter is to leave it alone. She urges people to keep their dogs on a leash, keep their distance and avoid feeding the animals.
Otters aren’t dangerous to humans or pets, she said. But humans and pets can be dangerous to otters.
“They don’t do anything,” she said. “They’ve been here. This is one of their natural homes.”