Most New Mexicans have never spotted a wild river otter. In the 19th century, the animals were trapped out of existence in much of their historic range. The last one known to have lived—or at least died—in New Mexico was caught in a beaver trap set in the Gila River near the town of Cliff in 1953. You can still visit that unlucky fellow; his pelt is preserved at the University of New Mexico's Museum of Southwestern Biology.
Given that river otters once swam and hunted fish and frogs in the Gila, it made sense to bring them back—and to work toward making the region's ecosystem whole again. So in 2006, when the New Mexico Game Commission voted to approve the reintroduction of river otters in the upper Rio Grande, then-Commissioner Dutch Salmon requested a second release area in the Gila. Voting unanimously, the commission directed the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to restore otters to both watersheds.
Two years later, Game and Fish, Taos Pueblo, the US Bureau of Land Management, the US Department of Agriculture and a coalition of organizations called New Mexico Friends of the River Otter began releasing wild otters from Washington into the waters of the upper Rio Grande.
But the Gila releases never occurred, in part because the agency had to determine which stretches of water might have sufficient flows and food to support six new otters.
Then, this past January, members of New Mexico Friends of the River Otter received a letter from their longtime partner at Game and Fish's Conservation Services Division, James Stuart, who had just met with Director Jim Lane, Assistant Director RJ Kirkpatrick and CSD Chief Matt Wunder. Personnel changes at the agency and on the Game Commission—whose seven politically appointed members set policy—required the agency to re-examine its projects, Stuart wrote. Citing the otters' possible impacts on threatened and endangered species and sport fisheries, as well as concerns raised by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish, the department no longer supported river otter reintroductions in the Gila basin.
Seemingly straightforward, that letter's three paragraphs actually do a good job of obscuring facts about the reintroduction.
First of all, the Game Commission sets policy. Unless the commission overturns its 2006 vote, Game and Fish must continue supporting the program. Not only that, but Arizona successfully reintroduced river otters to the Verde River in the 1980s. (At the time of Game and Fish's 2006 feasibility study, New Mexico was the only state within the historic range of the river otters without an established population of native or introduced otters.) If Arizona has regretted that move, officials haven't documented their concerns—or Game and Fish hasn't yet released that documentation. As of press time, the agency has yet to fulfill an Inspection of Public Records Act request from SFR, and neither Stuart, Lane nor Kirkpatrick returned SFR's calls requesting comment.
What about the Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency mandated to protect endangered species? Since 2010, New Mexico Game and Fish and FWS have been conferring over how the reintroduced otters might affect seven species of rare fish, the Chiricahua leopard frog and the northern Mexican gartersnake in the Gila.
"Our involvement was that we wanted more information," FWS Public Affairs Specialist Tom Buckley says. "We didn't tell them they could or couldn't do it. We just wanted more information."
There's also the matter of what Game and Fish's own biologists have said about reintroducing river otters to the Gila.
"Conceptually, I support it, but if it's done, it needs to be done in a very careful way," says David Propst, who before retiring from Game and Fish last year had raised concerns about potential impacts to endangered fish."You need to go cautiously, but you can put some safeguards in place, like radio transmitters or radio telemetry, to see what they do." If it looks like otters are about to cause problems, he explains, they can be relocated away from the imperiled native fish populations.
That's the same request the Friends of the River Otter have made—that the otters be monitored.
Admitting that he's ambivalent about the reintroduction, Propst believes that the department erred in unilaterally deciding not to return river otters to the Gila. "They should do a rigorous risk assessment," he says, "because, the way that it's been done, it looks like it's politically driven, rather than driven by good science and evidence."
It's obvious that Game and Fish leadership is concerned about something—but it might be politics rather than native fish. Even Salmon wonders what's happening.
"They're dancing around the issue, saying it's because the Fish and Wildlife Service has concerns about endangered species, but to the Game and Fish Department, the otter in the Gila probably looks like a potential controversy they'd rather avoid," Salmon says.
This wouldn't be the first time that Game and Fish's new leadership has backed away from controversy. Until recently, Game and Fish was a staunch supporter of The Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, which is led by the FWS but involves state and tribal partners. In 2008 and 2009, Game and Fish even opposed FWS' plans to remove wolves suspected of preying on livestock, causing the federal agency to change its policy. But at its June 2011 meeting, the Game Commission voted to end the state's participation in the Wolf Recovery Program.
For his part, Salmon also represents a constituency that might be bothered by the presence of otters. "I fish the Gila River system in New Mexico quite avidly, and if anybody should be concerned about the otters eating all the sport fish, it would be me," he says. "But I'm not too worried."
On Feb. 23, the Game Commission will hold its monthly meeting in Hobbs—and river otters are on the agenda. Visit wildlife.state.nm.us for more information.