Recent otter attack in Montana (almost) unheard of

Otter expert: Attack seemed to have the perfect combination of elements

By: - August 11, 2023 12:00 pm

A North American River Otter swimming near Whidbey Island, Washington (Photo courtesy of Heide Island of Pacific University).

The three women who were recently attacked by an otter while floating on the Jefferson River near Three Forks stood about a near-equal chance of being charged by an angry unicorn.

Otter attacks with injuries or fatalities are so rare that biologists have tracked a very specific number: There have only been 59 documented attacks by otters of all species.

Since 1875.


For comparison, it’s estimated that 25 people on average in America die each year after getting struck by lightning.

In Montana, where river otters are plentiful, the state’s department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks reports only one other case of an otter attack recently: A 2021 occurrence on the Big Hole River.

While the attack attracted the attention of the public because such behavior isn’t normally associated with the lovable, furry creatures who lope on land and glide gracefully through water, the incidents haven’t raised hackles with state wildlife officials who say the behavior, while rare, isn’t out of character.

“Typically, we don’t try and track down animal attacks unless it’s behavior that’s abnormal. In the cases mentioned above, we didn’t try and find the otters as the behavior wasn’t seen as abnormal,” said Montana FWP spokesman Greg Lemon. “Otters can be aggressive when protecting a den or a food source.”

Otter behavior expert Heide Island, a professor at Pacific University in Oregon, agreed: While otter attacks are exceedingly uncommon, the aggressive nature of this mad mustelid can be explained.

She told the Daily Montanan that most of the time, wild river otters avoid interaction with humans. But they can become aggressive while defending their territory, their young or food sources. And just from the limited information she’s seen published on the most recent Montana attack, she believes several of the criteria could have been met.

Island said it’s helpful to understand a bit of otter biology: July and early August are key for female otters – it’s when they start weaning their pups, teaching them how to swim, hunt and survive. By mid-to-late summer, the pups are big enough and strong enough to begin venturing outside the den. Pups spend a year with their mother, Island said, and most give birth in March or April, depending on the season and the condition of the otter.

Otters are also crepuscular, meaning they’re most active during dawn and dusk hours.

Because of the timing and because the attack happened on the river near dusk – approximately 8:15 p.m. – Island said she is almost certain the ornery otter likely had young pups nearby and perceived the women as a threat.

River Otter facts

A group of otters is called “a romp,” in America. In Britain, they’re referred to as “a tangle.”

A litter or group of young otters are referred to as “pups” in America. In Britain, they’re referred to as “cubs.”

Female river otters average three pups per year, giving birth usually in March or April, weaning them in July or August.

There are 13 species of otters worldwide. They’re a member of the mustelidae, which also includes badgers and wolverines as well as weasels.

They spend approximately two-thirds of their time on land. They can hold their breath for as long as eight minutes and dive to 60 feet. 

She said river otters have an expansive diet so it is unlikely that it was fending for food. Island also cautioned that because river otters usually have a smaller geographic territory and are tied to water that recreationists should be cautious in the same area, especially at this time of year.

“If you see an otter nearby and you’re on the water, the best advice I can give is – get out of the water,” Island said. “On land, you have the advantage. In water, they do.”

Island points to two articles that track dangerous or fatal otter attacks worldwide. They show that from 1875 through 2021 only 59 attacks occurred worldwide. Though 20 of those are since 2011, half of those incidents are from Florida, making angry encounters even less likely in places like Montana.

“If you look at these even more closely, almost all involve the water or were along river banks,” she said. “I am deeply sorry to those people who were hurt. It seemed to come out of nowhere. Sadly, that’s usually the experience.

“People need to be mindful, not afraid.”

As an animal behaviorist who got her doctorate from the University of Montana, she said that most of the time people don’t see otters until they’re very close; their heads and bodies, a dark brown, usually match the color of the river bed and they barely rise from the water. Unlike other animals, otters don’t roar or make other sounds, and few recognize an otter den.

“Usually, if there are beaver in the area, there are otters,” Island said. “They can actually look snake-like. They’re elusive anyway and tend to be very mindful of human behavior. My guess is that (the attacking otter) felt threatened and she had young nearby because this is the time she’s weaning.”

The other otter

By strange coincidence, the attack on the Jefferson River isn’t the only otter-related news making headlines.

California authorities are searching for an otter, named “Otter 841,” which has developed a habit of going after surfers near Santa Cruz, prompting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Officials to plea with the curious public not to disturb otters.

Island said she’s been called upon by the media to help explain that otter behavior, too. She told the Daily Montanan she doesn’t believe the otter in California is as interested in the people as it may be interested in the surfboard. Island has helped document otters’ innate curiosity, plus they’re known for using tools.

However, she also said that more people charging into otter habitat can not only lead to more human-otter encounters, increasing the chance of injury, it can also drive the animals away from their habitat.

“The best way to lose an animal is to encroach on its territory,” she said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.