Wild Otters, Bobcats, Fishers Return to Flourishing Genesee
They’re conservation success stories spanning over 100 years.
Go to Perry, NY. Jump in your time machine. Zip back to 1860. Most of the Genesee River’s surrounding territories are farm fields. As far as the eye can see, the only trees around are farm windbreaks, gully huggers inaccessible to loggers, and huge standalone oaks.
To some wildlife, like pheasants and pigeons, it’s a paradise. To a deep forest predator, it’s a wasteland.
Zip forward to 1955. There are fewer farm fields. Islands of trees that are head-high or taller climb the hills and sprout in the valley floor. Wildlife hesitates to move from tree island to tree island. Invasive plants grow explosively in the fertilizer and pesticide-charged water, crowding the river and creek banks. Whole populations of fish sometimes die off at once.
To some wildlife, like bullhead catfish, life goes on. But to wild fish hunters, food is toxic.
Zip forward to 2020. Continuous bands of many kinds of oaks, maples, and birches wave in the sun. Gorges and gullies are packed with huge hemlocks and many up and coming seedlings. Some survived this whole time, but many are just getting started.
The deer commute to open areas from the thickets. Rabbits, squirrels, and porcupines wander and raise their young in the wide woods. The streams run clean and wiggle with life, pouring into the Genesee and heading north.
On a bubbling creek bank, a brown head pokes over a clump of mud. It pauses, checking the short path ahead. It rockets headfirst down the bank, riding its belly down a slick mud trail and vanishes like a whiskered snake into the water. It pops up with a shiny, red finned fish. It cracks into the fish with its blocky side-teeth, then bounces up the bank to try again. It’s a river otter.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) says that their 1990s River Otter Project intended to restore otters to the watersheds of western New York. From 1995 to 2000, volunteers and DEC staff live-trapped 279 river otters in eastern New York and released them at 16 different sites across the western part of the state, including the Genesee Valley. Those otters successfully fed themselves and raised offspring, so their descendants now cruise our creeks and the river. They eat small stream animals like fish, crayfish, and frogs, and sometimes chase and eat larger animals like muskrats and young beavers. Because they are top predators, they suffer from eating aquatic animals in water polluted by fertilizers and pesticides. Legal limitations on chemical use and this reintroduction project have helped otters bounce back.
In the winter, look for paired tracks in snow, about a third the size of a person's palm, two by two as the otter bounds over flat ice. Especially watch for shoebox-width trails where they slide on their bellies. In the summer, look for muddy shoebox-width slides leading from a steep bank straight into the water.
Back at the time machine, still in 2020, the creek falls into a narrow gully. A bare, brown log lies across the rocky gap. Moss clings to it. A bubbling bird voice pipes a brilliant song into the air. A sharply-pointed ear flicks. Then again. A foot touches the log. Shoulders, back, hips pour across like smoke in total silence. Just before it dips out of sight into the carpet of shrubs, a thumb-sized tail curls up to the sky. And just like that, it’s gone. It’s a bobcat.
DEC surveys from the late 1970s suggest that at the time, bobcats occupied a region the size of Maryland in eastern New York, but none in the Genesee region. There were three population centers, one each in the Adirondack, Catskill, and Taconic regions. Bobcats live alone and carefully hunt vast territories for mice, birds, rabbits, and sometimes deer. Even where their populations are healthy, there are never more than a few per several square miles. They love woods with gullies, but can’t find each other and raise offspring where forests are cut into islands by huge farm fields or busy towns. The steady reforesting of the valley and connecting of steep woods in the southern Genesee have helped bobcats return and thrive.
In the winter, look for round, clawless tracks in snow, about half the size of a person’s palm, stretching in a straight line through wooded areas. In the summer, look for scratches on small, soft-barked trees, about knee-high from the ground.
Back at the time machine, as the sun sets, little red feet carefully scratch their way down an old tree trunk. Ducking dangling, needled branches, it pauses one jump from the ground, watching. It drops to the ground and grabs a pine cone almost as big as its own body. It flies up the trunk just as a long, dark shadow bounces into full view. The shadow jumps to the tree and runs straight up. The red feet grab at branches, running from tree to tree. Too far behind, the shadow plops back to the ground and bounces on, nose to the ground, ready to chase up another tree. It’s a fisher.
The DEC says that fisher populations crashed in the late 1800s and early 1900s due to over-exploitation and loss of forested habitat due to unregulated logging and the clearing of land for farms. Reintroduction programs have proven to be effective in restoring populations, along with regulation of trapping opportunities and the initiation of reforestation programs. Trappers who catch a fisher must send the animal’s bottom jaw to the DEC for age and nutrition studies, and can choose to send in female fisher carcasses to help with fisher fertility studies. Reforestation regenerated good habitat for fishers and one of their favorite prey animals, the porcupine.
In the winter, look for paired tracks in snow, about half the size of a person’s palm, bounding through heavily wooded areas. In the summer, look in woods for pointed, dark scat with dark brown or gray stiff hairs in it. It just might be porcupine head or neck hair.
Especially in the southern Genesee Valley, keep a sharp eye to the ground and you just might catch a glimpse or sign of one of these secretive hunters. Spring will be on us before we know it. Some pairs of wild hunters may be getting ready for the next generation as we speak.