Otters spotted in southern Alberta city for first time in about a century

Some welcome new visitors have recently appeared in a southeastern Alberta park — otters.

Northern river otters have been spotted in Medicine Hat’s Police Point Park over the past few weeks, frolicking in the South Saskatchewan River and chowing down on fish.

The otters have never been plentiful in Alberta (they mostly stick to the province’s northern areas or the foothills) but the animals were once abundant across North America. The animals were heavily hunted during the period of the fur trade, and that paired with later urbanization greatly reduced their range. 

[The otters] are supposed to be here, but they just haven’t been for a very long time.– Corlaine Gardner, chief interpreter for Police Point Park

Corlaine Gardner, the park’s chief interpreter, said she was skeptical at first — thinking people were mistaking mink for otters, since otter sightings are so rare.

“Then one of our local photographers spent most of a day getting great pictures and boy are they ever cute,” she said.

“They are supposed to be here, but they just haven’t been for a very long time.”

She said she believes the last otter sighting in the city was likely a century ago and their reappearance is an indicator of a healthy river system.

A northern river otter scarfs down a fish for lunch in Medicine Hat. (Dan Schiebelbein)

The otters are dark brown, weigh around 15 to 30 pounds, and can be as long as a metre, with most of that length attributed to their long, tapered tails.

Gardner said there are three otters that appear to be sticking around in the park.

“They’re obviously doing well, having regular snacks from the river, there’s a good food supply for them. It’s an area they could be recolonizing … there’s not a lot of predators that can take on an otter. If people can give them respect and some distance, there’s very good chance they could become permanent residents,” she said. 

She said right now, the otters are on the far side of the river that isn’t accessible by the park’s main pathway, but access to the otters could change once the river thaws and boating season begins and parks will likely remind people to give the animals some space. 

Three northern river otters wind their way down the bank of the South Saskatchewan River to reach the water. (Dan Schiebelbein)

With files from The Homestretch