Fixing a wrong

Fixing a wrong

Conservation Northwest / Dec 13, 2018 / Fishers

A year ago, I didn’t know what a fisher was. Last week, I watched them scurry into the North Cascades for the first time in nearly 80 years.

By Keiko betcher, communications and outreach associate

When I first heard of a fisher, I assumed, as many others do, it was a bird or a fish. After learning they were actually porcupine-eating members of the weasel family, I was baffled. How had I not already known about such a cute, charismatic animal native to Washington?

A fisher bounds into North Cascades National Park after being released on December 5, 2018. Photo: Paul Bannick

I soon realized I wasn’t the only one—many others, including most people I knew, hadn’t known what a fisher was either. Unlike grizzly bears, lynx and wolverines, fishers are not a well-known woodland critter, probably because they’ve been a missing piece of our state’s ecosystem for nearly a century. But that’s been changing for more than a decade, and for the North Cascades specifically, it changed last week.

There to help represent Conservation Northwest, I was one of the lucky participants at the North Cascades fisher release on December 5, 2018. It was a big day for us—Conservation Northwest has worked with partners to restore fishers to Washington state since 2002. We funded a feasibility study on their reintroduction, helped inform a state recovery plan and rallied up public support, leading to successful and collaborative fisher releases in the Olympic Peninsula and South and Central Cascades. Now, we’ve finally brought them back to the North Cascades.

“We want people to know what this animal is. It’s a mystery,” said Jeff Lewis, mesocarnivore conservation biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, during the opening remarks of the release at the North Cascades Visitor Center.

Fishers are a bit of a mystery, and we’re to blame. Over-trapping, poisoning and habitat loss led to their local extinction by the mid-1900s. Humans contribute to the loss of many species, and the opportunity to restore them is rare. So in instances where the habitat is still there, like it is for fishers in the Cascades, and the only thing needed to reintroduce a species is collaboration and the animal itself, we ought to do so at every chance we get.

Students and biologists watch a fisher scurry into the North Cascades seconds after its release. Photo: Keiko Betcher

“It’s good to see us finally give something back. For so long, I’ve seen things coming out—being taken, being taken,” said Frank Bob, policy representative for the Lummi Natural Resources Department. “I’ve never seen very much being put back.”

And there are reasons why the reintroduction of fishers is significant, beyond intrinsic obligations.

“It’s not as much about the fisher as it is the fisher being a part of the biodiverse community,” said Jason Ransom, wildlife biologist for the National Park Service. “We know that if you have a more biodiverse community, you have a more resilient community.”

Leaders from the collaborative fisher project partners, including Conservation Northwest, Mount Rainier and North Cascades National Parks, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Calgary Zoo.               Photo: Chase Gunnell

With threats such as climate change and a booming human population so close to the Cascades, our ecosystems must be resilient. The health of people depends on the health of the environment. Resilient ecosystems make resilient communities. Though returning one small carnivore to its home may seem insignificant in the big picture, it’s crucial to recognize this connection between people and wildlife.

Perhaps no one understands the strength and resilience that comes from coexisting with wildlife better than the indigenous communities who have done so for millennia. I was humbled to hear the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe talk about their involvement, and the Lummi Nation share their blessings and songs. The Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe and Nooksack Indian Tribe are also strong supporters of this effort. By bringing fishers to the North Cascades, we are not only reconnecting a lost species, we are also reconnecting a lost culture from the past with the future.

The powerful effect reintroducing a species has on people was evident at the North Cascades release. I was one of the many people there taking photos. Knowing better than trying to compete with the professional wildlife photographers, I kept my camera pointed at the crowd.

As the children and biologists gently lifted the door of the box holding the first fisher, everyone held their breath in anticipation—though, not for very long. The moments that followed turned into minutes as the fisher remained hidden in the box. It took a few gentle prods before anything happened.

The crowd watches as fishers run through the North Cascades for the first time in nearly 80 years. Photo: Keiko Betcher

I could make out a glimpse of a whisker, a quick sniff from a little black nose. Then, in an instant, a brown, bushy tail glided across the mossy forest floor and out of sight. And the faces of the crowd were priceless. Folks from all ages, ranging across all backgrounds, were able to share this one experience together. To me, that was the most special part of this event.

“It’s a good feeling to be a part of it,” said Dave Werntz, Conservation Northwest Science and Conservation Director. “It’s a healing story. Fixing a wrong.”

When all six fishers had long gone into the woods, the crowd clapped, cheered, and congratulated one another on this remarkable accomplishment for conservation in Washington state. Before we hiked back up the trail to the visitor center, I couldn’t help but take one final look around the forest and feel a heightened sense of enchantment from its old-growth limbs, now that a missing piece was finally put back.

A fisher dashes into North Cascades National Park on December 5, 2018. Photo: Chase Gunnell