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River Otters: A Symbol of Hope for our Wetlands

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River Otters, previously thought to be extirpated from Toronto, have been making a comeback. Find out what this means for our wetlands in this article celebrating this amazing aquatic animal.

North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis) is a semi-aquatic mammal who calls the rivers, lakes and waterways of North America home. Their short legs with webbed feet, streamlined body and long and strong tail, help the otter propel through the water with ease. They take great care grooming their thick, water-repellent coat of fur which keeps them warm in the cold Canadian waters. These incredibly adorable and playful creatures always make for wonderful wetland sightings.

Learn More: About North American River Otter by Toronto Zoo

Population Decline and Extirpation from Toronto

Following the arrival of settlers, the population of river otters in Toronto began to decline. Loss of forest habitat for agriculture and urban development, pollution of the city’s rivers and waterways and large-scale commercial fur-trapping were among the primary reasons for the decline in otter populations. By the beginning of the 20th century, river otters, much like black bears, wolves, moose and other mammals, vanished from the regional landscape. River otters were since thought to have been extirpated from Toronto.

Learn More: Mammals of Toronto – Toronto Biodiversity Booklet Series

Long Awaited Gradual Comeback

Not to be confused with extinction, extirpation means the termination of a species in a specific geographic region. While the species might be extinct locally, it still exists elsewhere which leaves some hope for its eventual return.

The first sign of good news came in the fall of 2012. Around a century since disappearing from Toronto, river otter sightings were being reported at the edge of Toronto’s city limits. Their presence was an encouraging sign that local habitat restoration efforts were helping to improve the landscape. Nature lovers and wildlife photographers had not yet lost hope, with many constantly being on the lookout for an otter to appear in Toronto. The excitement was palpable, with many mistakenly reporting mink sightings as signs of the otter’s return.

Towards the end of the 2010s more river otter sightings were beings reported along Lake Ontario’s waterfront. Over a decade later, in the winter of 2024, the first river otter sightings were reported in High Park.

Learn More: The Search for the Great North American River Otter – Toronto Star

What This Means For Toronto’s Wetlands

Wetlands across the world are important not just as a habitat for thousands of species of plants and wildlife. They are also our best bet to mitigate the very real impacts of climate change.

Marshes, swamps, floodplains and other wetlands help absorb excess rainfall, reduce the risk of flooding, and protect our infrastructure, health and well-being. More importantly, they act as carbon sinks, capturing and storing more CO₂ than any other ecosystem on Earth. This makes wetlands our best bet during a global climate emergency.

The river otter’s return to Toronto is proof that not all hope is lost when it comes to protecting wetland habitats and the incredible biodiversity they support. It is testament to the gradual improvements made to restore the city’s wetland ecosystems which had been long ignored and polluted for much of the last century.

Constant and continued efforts to restore, maintain and protect Toronto’s natural ecosystems could bring us closer to seeing the return of many long-lost wildlife. Restoration of High Park’s original habitats has resulted in the return of species like the Halloween Pennant Dragonfly and the Juvenal’s Duskywing Butterfly. Who knows? Tomorrow we might see the return of the Red-headed Woodpecker, the Southern Flying Squirrel, or dare we say, the much beloved Karner Blue Butterfly.

Learn More: Extirpated Species – High Park Nature

A River Otter sits on the bank of its water enclosure in Toronto Zoo.
A North American River Otter sits on the bank of its water enclosure in Toronto Zoo. Credit: High Park Nature Centre

How You Can Protect High Park’s Wetlands

High Park’s Grenadier Pond and its other wetlands are classified as a Provincially Significant Wetland and as an Area of Natural and Scientific Interest in Ontario. Grenadier Ponds wetlands are among the few remaining lakefront marshes in Toronto which support regionally rare wetland species. As visitors to the park, here are some ways you can help protect High Park’s wetland wildlife:

  • Do not feed waterfowl or wildlife
    The City of Toronto’s bylaws prohibit feeding and disturbing wild animals. Please avoid feeding ducks, swans, or any wildlife in High Park. Doing so not only conditions them to expect food from humans, but also makes them aggressive putting both humans and animals at risk. Human food is especially unhealthy for animals and their ecosystems. For example, feeding bread to waterfowl fills them up but provides no valuable nutrition to the bird thus jeopardizing their lives. Moreover, leftover bread in waterbodies can become breeding grounds for harmful bacteria that could negatively impact the ecosystem. Wild animals do not need our handouts. The only kindness they need is for us to allow them to use their own natural instincts to forage food in High Park. Trust us, nature will thank you for it.

    Learn More: City of Toronto’s Bylaws on Feeding Wildlife
  • Be a responsible fisher
    Grenadier Pond is a natural protected area. If you intend to fish here, please follow the rules and be an ethical and responsible fisher. Fish only in authorized areas in the south-eastern shores of Grenadier Pond. Ensure you always carry your fishing license. Do not interfere or harass other wildlife or park users. And lastly, but most importantly, please safely dispose off your fishing gear. It is not uncommon to see leftover bobbers and fishing lines in Grenadier Pond. Fishing gear poses a significant risk to the lives of wetland wildlife.

    Learn More: Fishing Responsibly in Toronto’s High Park

  • Keep the park litter free
    Do not leave behind litter on the trails or throw it in water bodies. It’s always a disappointment to see rare bird or animal at the Grenadier Pond with soda cans and plastic containers floating around it. It’s always a good idea to plan for a litter-free visit. If you do need to dispose off your litter, please do so in the appropriate trash cans located in the park.
  • Keep your dogs on leash, under control and away from wildlife
    Dog owners irresponsibly letting their dogs run around off-leash in unauthorized areas is a serious problem in High Park and across Toronto. Not only does this annoy other visitors, but it also poses a risk to wildlife in the park. There have been numerous instances of dogs running into Grenadier Pond and also swimming after ducks and other wildlife. This behaviour puts your dog’s life at risk while also discouraging other rare wildlife species from inhabiting the area. Please learn where the dog off-leash areas in High Park are, and please keep your dog on leash, under control and away from wildlife and wetlands.

    Learn More: Responsible Pet-Walking Practices – Paws for Parks
  • Practice ethical wildlife photography in the park
    In recent years, particularly during the pandemic, there has been a surge in interest in wildlife photography. While this is a great way to connect with and communicate about nature, it is also important to be an ethical wildlife photographer. This means not harassing wildlife, keeping a safe distance from them when taking photos, not baiting wildlife with sounds, food or scents and not publicly revealing the location of sensitive and vulnerable species in High Park.

    Learn More: 10 Tips for Ethical Wildlife Photography – City of Toronto

  • Treat all wildlife with care and respect
    We encourage all visitors in High Park to remember that it is not just a recreational park. It is an ecological gem in the heart of Toronto that is home to rare ecosystems and vulnerable species of plants and wildlife. We are visitors in their home and need to treat them with care and respect. Doing so can help contribute to restoring and protecting nature in High Park. In the future, we hope many more wild species who roamed these lands in the past can return back and call High Park and Toronto home.