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The Forest Awakens with the Return of the Fisher

School children attended the release of fishers on Dec. 3 at a location on federal forest land in the south Cascade Mountains, near Mount Rainier National Park. At left, an up-close view of a fisher. (WDFW photos)

Credit: WDFW
School children attended the release of fishers on Dec. 3 at a location on federal forest land in the south Cascade Mountains, near Mount Rainier National Park. At left, an up-close view of a fisher. (WDFW photos)

WDFW, partners reintroduce long-absent, cat-sized carnivore into south Cascades range

Biologists earlier this month released seven fishers into Washington’s south Cascade Mountains, where the reclusive, cat-sized mammal hasn’t been seen for more than 70 years.

The fisher, sometimes called Pacific fisher on the West Coast, is one of the larger members of the weasel family, which includes minks, otters, badgers, and wolverines. Fishers were eliminated from Washington by the mid-1900s through over-trapping and have been listed as a state endangered species since 1998.

The Dec. 3 reintroduction was made possible through collaboration of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the National Park Service, Conservation Northwest, and myriad other partners. These agencies and organizations previously worked together from 2008 to 2010 to release 90 fishers in Olympic National Park, where the species is now widely distributed and successfully reproducing. 

“We’re excited to begin releasing fishers to another area of Washington where they lived historically,” said Penny Becker, WDFW’s wildlife diversity division manager. “With abundant habitat, we think they’ll do well here.”

The fishers released earlier this month were captured in central British Columbia, similar to those released in Olympic National Park. Each of the three males and four females was confirmed to be in good health and equipped with a radio transmitter to allow biologists to track the animals’ movements, home range establishments, and survival status. Confirming reproduction will become a focus of the monitoring program during the March-to-June denning season.

WDFW and NPS will coordinate the monitoring of all fishers. Conservation Northwest will support ongoing fisher monitoring in the area with volunteers and remote cameras through its Citizen Wild-life Monitoring Project.

Updates about the released fishers will be posted on WDFW’s Web page at tion/fisher/reintroduction_cas cades.html.

Jeff Lewis, a mesocarnivore conservation biologist with WDFW, told The Enterprise by e-mail on Monday, “This reintroduction is significant because, if successful, it will reestablish a self-sustaining population of fishers in the largest portion of their historical range in Washington.”

Lewis said this effort also is significant because the fisher has oft-en been successfully reintroduced.

“This success is largely due to the fact that fishers were extirpated as a result of over-harvest as opposed to loss of habitat,” he said. “Because habitat exists and we now have protections in place to prevent over-harvest, fisher reintroductions are more likely to succeed in reestablishing a self-sustaining population.”

Partners in the recovery effort chose an early December release in the south Cascades because that was the soonest that five or more fishers were available to translocate to Washington.

“Fisher capture efforts began on November 1 but we did not have five or more to translocate until early December,” Lewis said. “Our goal is to release 40 this fall/winter and to do the same next year for a total of 80 released.”

The releases are taking place in the south Cascades on federal lands, including at Mount Rainier National Park. Lewis indicated researchers chose release sites that were “located in the center of the large landscapes suitable for habitat (center of the south Cascades ecosystem), away from large highways, and accessible by vehicle from November to the end of February.” Releases in the north Cascades are scheduled tentatively for 2017 or 2018.

“It’s thrilling to see these animals back in the south Cascades,” said Randy King, superintendent for Mount Rainier National Park. “We’re looking forward to the first release in Mount Rainier National Park.”

Fishers are native to the forests of Washington, including the Cascade Mountain range. The elusive carnivore preys on various small mammals – mountain beavers, squirrels, and snowshoe hares – and is one of the few predators of porcupines.

“With fishers returning to the Cascades, we’re restoring an important piece of the ecosystem and our shared natural heritage,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest. “That’s something all Washingtonians should be proud of.”

Re-establishing viable populations of fishers in the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges are important steps to down-listing the species in Washington state. 

The state recovery plan and the implementation plan for the Cascade fisher reintroductions can be found on WDFW’s Web page.

Sources of funding for the reintroduction include the National Park Service, Conservation Northwest, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife grants, Washington personalized license plates, and funds from other partners.

Fishers in Washington

The fisher is a large, stocky, dark brown member of the weasel family, about the size of a house cat. The fisher has a long, bushy tail; short, rounded ears; short legs; and a low-to-the-ground appearance.

Historically, fishers occurred throughout much of Washington’s mid- to low-elevation forested areas (most of western Washington, northeastern Washington’s Selkirk Mountains, and the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington). The state lacked trapping regulations to conserve fisher populations until the establishment of the Department of Game in 1934. Before then, fishers were over-trapped throughout their range because of the high market value of their pelts and their susceptibility to trapping. Fishers also were vulnerable to incidental capture in body-gripping traps set for other fur-bearers, as well as poaching and mortality from predator and pest control campaigns.

The combination of these mortality factors and the loss and fragmentation of habitat led to the extinction of the fisher in Washington. Despite legal protection from trapping for more than 80 years, the fisher has not recovered.

Extensive surveys in Washington to detect wide-ranging carnivores in the 1990s documented a number of target species but failed to detect fishers. Because of the lack of fisher detection and concern about fisher population declines, WDFW conducted a status review for the fisher in 1997. The review concluded the fisher was apparently extirpated in the state and recommended that it be listed as an endangered species in the state, which occurred in 1998.

Fisher conservation efforts in Washington began following the listing. A recovery plan was written for the fisher; both the status review and the recovery plan identified the need for reintroduction to restore the species in the state because there were no existing fisher populations close enough to repopulate Washington. The first reintroduction in the state, the first step toward fisher recovery in Washington, occurred in 2008 in Olympic National Park.

A feasibility assessment by WDFW in 2004 concluded fishers could be successfully reintroduced on the Olympic Peninsula, in the southwestern Cascades, and in the northwestern Cascades. The assessment indicated that the factors that contributed to the fisher’s extirpation no longer exist or are greatly diminished.

An executive summary for the Implementation Plan for Reintroducing Fishers to the Cascade Mountain Range, written by Lewis, noted, “With successful reintroduction and population growth, fishers released in the southwestern and northwestern Cascades will become connected, self-sustaining meta-populations. This outcome would allow for a down-listing from endangered to sensitive species status in the state and would represent a significant improvement in fisher conservation status for Washington and for the fisher’s west coast populations.”

Although biologists will draw on lessons they learned from reintroducing fishers in Olympic National Park, they do not know if the fishers released in the Cascades will respond the same way. The Cascade reintroduction project, biologists say, provides a valuable opportunity to learn a great deal about how fishers respond, adjust to, and become established in a new environment.


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