I held my breath as I watched the first blur of brown fur dash into the forest on short little legs, bushy tail streaming behind. I knew fishers were small forest carnivores, but now I added “fast” to my list of descriptors. As the last of the six fishers transported from Canada by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) bounded into the forest, the group I was with let out a quiet cheer. We represented the many conservation organizations, federal agencies, tribes and others who have worked tirelessly to make the recovery of fishers in Washington possible. Fishers would sleep in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest that night for the first time in decades. I hope they all found a nice big snag to snuggle up in for the winter.
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Fishers are considered mesocarnivores – small to medium sized animals that for the most part eat small prey, although they are also known to munch on tasty mushrooms and fruits. They share a limb of the tree of life with weasels, otters, marten, mink, and badgers. In fact, they look a lot like otters that have taken to land instead of water. They munch on birds and rodents, and are one of the few carnivores known to eat porcupines. Fishers used to live in many of the forested habitats of North America. However, like many mesocarnivores, they were coveted for their fur in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and heavily hunted as a result in the southern parts of their range. Then, destruction of their forest habitat from logging and development put further stress on an already depleted population. By mid-century, fishers were gone from Washington, and officially declared “extirpated” – locally extinct – from the state in the mid-90s.
These adorable forest dwellers are associated with old growth forests, but now researchers know that they can also use different aged forests as long as those forests have good structure, or ‘good bones’, as I like to say. Old growth forests are known for structure because they have a really long time to create it. Structure in a forest increases hiding spots, opportunities to find good eats, and chances to find a dry and safe den to sleep in and to raise kits (young fishers). Snags (dead standing wood), downed trees, logs, rootwads (exposed roots of a fallen tree), stumps, branches, varying aged trees, shrubs — you name it — it all contributes to structure, which we biologists call “habitat complexity.” Unfortunately, private, large-scale, timber companies harvest trees in a way that makes the habitat far less complex. Their practices leave only same-aged stands of trees, and very few stumps, dead trees, and other structure on the ground. As a result, some of the best habitat left in Washington is on our public lands like our national parks and national forests, where those timber practices aren’t allowed. So that is where efforts to bring fishers back are taking place.
Right now, the West Coast population of fishers – that’s northern California, Oregon, and Washington – is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Washington isn’t waiting for a decision before they get started – our state is leading the charge when it comes to West Coast fisher recovery. Recognizing that efforts needed to be made quickly to protect the highly imperiled fisher, WDFW opted to list the species under the state’s Endangered Species Act in 1998. This listing gives the state the opportunity to create its own recovery plan for the fisher, which it is now in the middle of carrying out!
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The state’s recovery plan calls for reintroducing new populations of fishers into our state’s three large national parks. Relocating fishers from healthy northern populations in Canada to re-establish them in Washington will ultimately help connect and recover the entire West Coast population, from the Sierra Nevada in California and the Southern Cascades in Oregon, to the Canadian Cascades.
The first phase of the reintroductions began in 2008 when fishers were reintroduced to the Olympic National Park. This year, fishers are being reintroduced to Mount Rainier National Park and the surrounding national forests. Over the next few years they will be released into the North Cascades National Park. It’s an ambitious plan, and one that has taken a village of supporters, funders, stakeholders, cooperators, landowners, leaders, researchers, and wildlife managers to make come true, but a cause that is critically important for fishers’ continued recovery.
Defenders’ Northwest program has worked with the lead regional partner, Conservation Northwest, to contribute to WDFW’s reintroductions. We’ve got a lot of work still to do, including continuing to talk to residents and wildlife agencies about the importance of preserving forests ecosystems for fishers and other wildlife species that depend on these areas. We’ll also continue to educate folks about how to co-exist with these new furry creatures if they are in your neck of the woods. And, of course, we’re closely monitoring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s upcoming decision to list of the West Coast population of fishers; we’ll be sure to keep you updated as we hear more.