Fishers continue scampering back into Washington

Fishers continue scampering back into Washington

Conservation Northwest / May 25, 2017 / Fishers, Restoring Wildlife

The recent 2016 – 2017 winter season of fisher releases was the most successful yet!

This past winter, 46 fishers went dashing off into the wintry forests of Washington’s South Cascades.

Compare that to two winters ago when 23 fishers were set free in the same area, and the evidence is clear: this 2016 – 2017 winter season of fisher releases – part of a multi-year reintroduction project by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the National Park Service, Conservation Northwest and other partners – was the most successful yet!

Our partners at the National Park Service have released an inspiring short video on our fisher reintroduction project. Check it out on YouTube!

Only about the size of a large housecat, fishers are tenacious creatures. With a temperament similar to their cousin the wolverine and bodies indicative of the weasel family of which they’re a member, fishers have the unique ability to climb head-first down tree trunks to surprise prey from above. And they are one of the few predators of porcupines.

Fishers were once abundant in the Cascades, raising their young in dens amongst the massive logs and snags of our region’s lush mid- and low-elevation old-growth forests. But by the early 1900s their thick, luxurious fur drew the attention of trappers, while other settlers sought to reduce their numbers to prevent conflicts with chickens and pets, activities that were unregulated at the time. To add insult to injury, the logging of old-growth forests in the Northwest greatly reduced the habitat that fishers prefer. By the 1930s the fisher had disappeared from Washington state.

But fisher populations in British Columbia are thriving, so much so that fur trappers still make a living there. By paying experienced trappers a premium price to live-trap fishers, we’re able to safely capture fishers from healthy populations and transport them into Washington to restore the native species to their historical homes.

This reintroduction effort to the Cascades comes in the wake of our successful project to reintroduce fishers to the Olympic Mountains, another area of excellent habitat for these forest dwellers. We partnered with WDFW, the National Park Service and others to release 90 fishers there from 2008 through 2010. Diligent tracking and monitoring by Olympic Park Service, WDFW and others indicates that population is now broadly distributed and reproducing successfully. Now, we’re turning our attentions to the Cascades, where we began releasing fishers in the South Cascades in 2015 and plan to continue until 160 fishers have been released into the north and south Cascades over the course of multiple winters.

Fast-forward to November of 2016, the onset of trapping season, and there’s not enough snow in areas of British Columbia for some trappers to set their live traps. Being able to follow snow tracks is essential in order to accurately locate fishers and place live-traps, so most of the fishers caught in the earlier part of the season came from west of Fraser River in Chilcotin where there was more early snowfall.

Other animals can wreak havoc on the trapping process as well. A couple of curious grizzly bears, drawn by the set bait, crushed traps irreparably. More common wildlife was discovered in traps as well, like marten, river otter, and skunk (one unfortunate trapper encountered the last species in his live-traps a grand total of seven times).

A fisher darts out of its transport box into the forests of the South Cascades in December 2016. Photo: Kevin Bacher/Mount Rainier National Park

Neither early weather nor unwanted animals slowed progress, however, as both November and December saw record-breaking numbers of fishers trapped in the eight years we have worked on the reintroduction project. WDFW biologist Jeff Lewis attributes this success to “better trapping conditions and really great help by our contractors in B.C. who were able to make adjustments really well on the fly in mid-season.”

In early December, four female and six male fishers were released in the Nisqually River watershed of Mount Rainier National Park, the first of several releases throughout the season. In attendance were the regulars: state, federal and non-profit biologists, as well as members of the media. But this year, representatives from the Nisqually Tribe, the Cowlitz Tribe, the Tsilhqot’in Nation, the Williams Lake Indian Band of the Secwepemc Nation, and the Dakelh Nation were all in attendance as well, singing traditional songs and sending the animals into their native habitat with blessings and celebration.

Just a couple of days after the New Year, the project partner’s original quota of capturing 40 fishers had been met. A request to extend the number to 60 was sent – and approved. With an abundance of fishers being captured and cleared by veterinarians for release, we now had the luxury of being picky. They began prioritizing keeping females and returning males to their original locations in British Columbia – a one-off attempt to make up for the shortages of females released the previous year. With releases from the two past winters combined, 69 fishers including 38 females have been released into the forests of the South Cascades.

According to Lewis, who has been intimately involved with fisher reintroduction work in Washington, the upcoming 2017-2018 winter season will see a shift in focus from the South Cascades to the northern part of the mountain range. “[We’ll be] hopefully catching close to 50 again and releasing them in the North Cascades reintroduction area this fall and winter,” he said.

With our intent of keeping the Northwest wild, it’s a special honor to participate in native wildlife reintroduction in areas where humans once eradicated them. It’s part of our responsibility as stewards of the land to do so. We plan to continue partnering with government agencies and other organizations to ensure the full reintroduction of fishers to the lands that they once called home in our state.

Funding for fisher reintroductions include the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service, Conservation Northwest, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington’s National Park Fund, state wildlife grants, Washington State personalized license plates, and funds from other partners.