Fishers recolonize Washington, part of a Northwest rewilding

The forest carnivore’s return was helped by human intervention.

 

These are thrilling times to be a wildlife aficionado in the Pacific Northwest, a region whose ecosystems grow richer with each passing day. Wolverines have been trickling into northern Washington for years; biologists are dumping bull trout into Oregon’s Clackamas River; wolves are steadily gaining ground in both states. The grizzly bear, a candidate for reintroduction in the North Cascades, looms on the rugged horizon. 

Meanwhile, a less heralded creature is also experiencing a quiet revival: the Pacific fisher, a cat-sized mammal that’s kin to weasels, marten, and otters. Unlike its cousin, the wolverine, fishers haven’t re-infiltrated Washington on their own — rather, they’ve had help from Homo sapiens, the very species that once extirpated them. On December 3, the fisher’s recovery took an enormous bound forward: Before a crowd of 50 onlookers, the state released seven fishers into Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the first time the creature had been seen in the South Cascades in more than 70 years. 

Seven fishers were released into Gifford Pinchot National Forest on Dec. 3, 2015.
Paul Bannick/Conservation Northwest

Fishers are capable of impressive arboreal acrobatics — they den in tree cavities and can rotate their hind paws 180 degrees to descend from their roosts headfirst. But they're most renowned for their predatory abilities. Woe betide the porcupine that crosses a fisher’s path: The fierce carnivore dances circles around its quilled quarry, weakening it with blows to the head before finally flipping it over and, as Brian Doyle — a writer so appreciative of mustelids  that he named a town after one — put it, “scooping out the meat as if the prickle-pig were merely a huge and startled breakfast melon.”

Despite those estimable skills, fishers historically proved no match for the most rapacious hunter of all. Prized by trappers for its lush fur, Martes pennanti was completely wiped out in the Evergreen State in the mid-1900s. In the West, they survived only in southwest Oregon and northern California, where they’re now imperiled by rat poisons spread by illegal marijuana growers. (In the northeastern United States, the picture is considerably sunnier, as fishers are resettling habitat from Appalachia to, improbably, the Bronx.)

Though fishers had departed Washington, they were never forgotten. In 1998, the state declared the species endangered (an understatement if ever there was one), prompting new interest in its recovery. Soon after, the nonprofit Conservation Northwest offered to help the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife study the possibility of reintroduction. Finally, in 2008, WDFW and a host of partners began relocating fishers from a healthy population in British Columbia to the sprawling old-growth of Olympic National Park. Over the next two years, WDFW, Conservation Northwest, and the National Park Service released 90 altogether. According to WDFW wildlife biologist Jeff Lewis, the tree-dwelling mammals have dispersed widely and successfully reproduced.

A  video shows the first fisher release in Gifford Pinchot National Forest near Mount Rainier. By Chase Gunnell/Conservation Northwest.

With an Olympic population established, the agency and its partners turned their attention to the South Cascades this fall. Translocating a fisher, it turns out, is a fairly straightforward process. Conservation Northwest pays Canadian fur trappers $600 apiece for live fishers, considerably more than they’d earn for a pelt. The mustelids are then housed briefly at an animal sanctuary, where they’re fed donated roadkill, before being trucked down to Washington. (They tend to attract attention from border patrol.) In the U.S., they’re checked for parasites and broken teeth and implanted with a tracking device. The plan is to release a total of 80 fishers in Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount Rainier National Park over the next two years, then repeat the procedure in the North Cascades. “We’ve got a great chance to achieve a self-sustaining population in a really important of its historic range,” says Lewis.

While the large weasels aren’t about to devour sheep or maul backpackers, wildlife projects are seldom devoid of controversy. The fisher is currently proposed for federal Endangered Species Act listing throughout its range, and a decision is expected next year. That’s prompted some nail-biting among private landowners, particularly timber companies, which fear new regulations when relocated fishers inevitably wander onto their property. To alleviate such concerns, WDFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are developing an agreement that will allow landowners to complete voluntary conservation actions and thereby avoid additional restrictions, a bargain that’s been used to protect some populations of sage grouse.

Though fisher politics may someday get sticky, the critter’s advocates are relishing their success so far. After decades of biological poverty, the Northwest’s forests now teem with mammalian life; just about all that’s missing is, yes, the grizzly. The reintroduction model pioneered on behalf of fishers, whereby environmental groups like Conservation Northwest split costs and responsibilities with public agencies, could eventually provide a blueprint for restoring even that polarizing predator.

“As we protect more land, we can go to the next level and start bringing back some of the wildlife that’s characteristic to the state,” says Dave Werntz, science and conservation director at Conservation Northwest, which spent more than $80,000 on the fisher program. “It’s a marvelous time we’re living in.”

Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent at High Country News.