ALONG THE RIO PUEBLO DE TAOS, N.M. — The sun had barely peaked over the Taos Mountains. A half-dozen river otters from the Pacific Northwest seemed at home after being released Friday into the ice cold water of the Rio Pueblo de Taos.
The wild otters were trapped in Washington state and transported to New Mexico as part of an effort to return the sleek mammals to their historic range in the state. The otters were inspected by state game officials before being released from large wooden crates along the river’s bank.
Several groups, including the Bureau of Land Management and state Game and Fish Department, have been working years to get the otters back into New Mexico rivers. They were once plentiful in the upper and middle Rio Grande, the Gila, Mora, San Juan and Canadian river systems.
Officials said otters were last spotted more than 50 years ago in the Gila River before the reintroduction effort began last year. Decades of trapping and habitat loss are believed to factors that led to their disappearance from New Mexico.
“They were extirpated in 1953 so in an ethical sense, they are rightful residents. They belong here,” said Rupert Chambers, a board member with Amigos Bravos, one of the groups that has supported the reintroduction.
Most of the otters were quick out of their crates after first approaching the openings with caution. However, one took nearly 30 minutes to gather up the courage to step out of the box and onto the river’s grassy bank.
Once in the river, the otters were hard to spot — except for two that took a short break from the water to venture up the canyon’s lichen-covered basalt boulders. Eventually, they all slipped into the water and disappeared.
The six otters released Friday join 10 that were released in the Rio Pueblo de Taos last October. BLM officials and conservationists say the reintroduction effort has proven successful, with the first batch of otters producing pups.
The otters released last year have moved into the Rio Grande, traveling north to the Colorado border and south toward Santa Fe.
Officials said more releases are planned this fall in the upper Rio Grande near Taos and next year in the Gila in southwestern New Mexico.
The otters will be monitored by state and federal biologists, and volunteers with the coalition New Mexico Friends of River Otters will help survey for the mammals by watching for tracks and scat.
Nearly two dozen states, including neighboring Arizona, Colorado and Utah, have successfully reintroduced river otters, which biologists say play an important role in keeping semi-aquatic ecosystems healthy and diverse.
Playful and highly social, the otter is a member of the weasel family.