The fisher journey

The fisher journey

Conservation Northwest / Nov 27, 2019 / British Columbia, Fishers, North Cascades, Restoring Wildlife

Getting healthy fishers from Canada to Washington is no simple task—read the story behind their journey that leads them back into the Cascades.

By Keiko Betcher, Communications and Outreach Associate

Huddled into the corner of a wooden box about the size of a file cabinet, a fisher with round ears, whiskers and a long bushy tail waits eagerly to discover its new surroundings. It smells moist and earthy here, and feels a little warmer than where it originally came from.

Trappers from Bushman Inc. near Edmonton in northern Alberta stand in prime fisher habitat. By ethically live-capturing fishers, they’re a core part of our fisher reintroduction project. Photo: Dave Werntz

Slowly, a sliver of light widens at the front of the box, until it is fully open and the fisher’s new home is in full view: large, moss-covered rocks, cozy-looking snags and vibrant green foliage. For the first time in nearly 80 years, it dashes out of the box and into the North Cascades. And this time, it’s finally home.

The story of fishers returning to Washington’s Cascades is likely one you’ve heard before, and one we’re proud to have made possible with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and National Park Service. But fishers make quite the journey to get to here. Starting from way up north in Canada, many partners have allowed this once-extirpated species to come back home to Washington.

For this season’s fishers reintroduced in the North Cascades, their journey begins near Edmonton in northern Alberta. In a partnership with Bushman Inc., an Alberta-based trapping group, we pay fur trappers to live-capture healthy fishers for wildlife restoration.

“They’re really excited about the project and participating in the recovery effort,” said Dave Werntz, Conservation Northwest Science and Conservation Director. “We’ve got a really great team up north, and they really care a lot about the animals.”

This year, the trapping season has gone very well. In just 12 days, trappers already had 16 fishers ready to go.

A stop at the zoo

Once trappers retrieve a fisher, they call up the veterinary staff at the Calgary Zoo, and make an arrangement to drop of the fisher and put them into the zoo’s housing facility. Here, it’s somewhat of a paradise for fishers—in a big open pen area, they have plenty of dark, cozy hiding places, space to scurry about, and trees and branches galore. And not to mention, they’re spoiled with tender pieces of moose, beaver meat, and other delicacies.

Notice this fisher’s chest blaze—through our Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project, we contribute to fisher research after they’ve been reintroduced. Photo: CWMP

“As one of Canada’s leading conservation charities, the Calgary Zoo is thrilled to bring our internationally recognized expertise in reintroduction science to such an important conservation initiative,” said Dr. Clement Lanthier, president & CEO of the Calgary Zoo, in a recent news release. “Reintroductions are one of the best tools we have in the fight against species loss and seeing these strong and healthy Alberta carnivores released into pristine forest habitat, is very rewarding.”

But the fishers aren’t ready to head to the Cascades just yet. To make sure they’re fit for reintroductions, vets take detailed notes of each fisher they receive. After carefully and safely anesthetizing it and keeping a watchful eye on its heart rate and temperature, the inspection begins.

Vets look at their teeth—four, or at least three, large incisors in their mouths signal a nice and healthy fisher. They record the fisher’s gender and measure the length of its tail and other body parts. A ridge on top of their head may indicate their age. If it’s a female, vets check for signs of reproduction in the past. They collect tufts of hair for DNA analysis, and take photos of chest blazes, which like their cousins the wolverines, can sometimes be distinct and helpful to identify individuals. They’re combed for parasites and are treated for any maladies.

Finally, the fishers are outfitted with transmitters, which in addition to the hair snags and chest blaze photos, will provide valuable data on how fishers are doing once they’re released. We help support fisher monitoring through our volunteer-powered remote camera work of our Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project.

Fishers are tenacious members of the weasel (or mustelid) family, and were once extinct from Washington state. Through a collaborative effort with state, federal and international partners, they’ve successfully returned to their home in the Cascades. Photo: Paul Bannick

“The recovery project is generating new and important information about fishers,” Werntz said. “There is a lot we still have to learn and the associated research builds our knowledge base —age and size relationships, fisher behavioral traits, and how to best provide care during captivity.”

But the processing procedure doesn’t stop there. In addition to conducting a vetting process for the fishers before they’re reintroduced for recovery, the zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research studies the effect that translocation has on the fishers.

By testing the stress hormones in the fishers’ droppings in the wild versus in captivity, researchers are able to tell how the animals react to being moved around. The zoo also makes observations on the fishers’ behavior, such as whether or not they’re playful with objects or if they’re more relaxed, and whether or not they have an appetite, and will assess which behaviors might be linked to survival.

Learn more about how trappers in Alberta and veterinarians at the Calgary Zoo are contributing to the fisher reintroduction project in this video!

Crossing the border

Once around six to eight fishers are done with their check-ups and other research needs, it’s time to start scheduling a flight to bring them down into the U.S.

National Park Service and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists pick up fishers in Canada before driving them into the North Cascades.

“We have a sweet arrangement with a local airline so that the fishers can leave Calgary in the morning and be on the ground in the North Cascades just after lunch,” Werntz said. “This gives them a lot of daylight on that first day to get oriented.”

And here is where this story meets the one you’ve likely heard before, the final step in the fisher recovery process: releasing them back into their native habitat.

“On that first day, they just need to find a cubby hole—like a cavity in a snag or a big, old-growth tree—for protection so they can get adjusted to their new home,” Werntz said.

With our partners at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service, we’ve been able to release fishers to the Olympic Peninsula, the South and Central Cascades, and finally, the North Cascades.

The North Cascades provides perfect habitat for fishers, with plenty of old snags and mossy, old trees to make their home. Photo: David Moskowitz. Permission Required for Use.

A model for future wildlife recovery

This is our second year of releases in the North Cascades, on top of 26 fishers that were released during the fall and winter of 2018-2019. While it’s still too early to make predictions about how those fishers are doing now, the general consensus among researchers is that most are doing well.

Read the latest progress report on Cascades fishers!

A healthy fisher runs into the North Cascades. It’s made a long journey from northern Alberta, Canada to Washington state! Photo: David Moskowitz. Permission required for Use.

“The big news is the first cohort spread out a lot more than we anticipated,” Werntz said. “But working in the North Cascades presents unique challenges to using telemetry data due to intense topography.”

These kinds of challenges provide useful lessons for future wildlife recovery projects. Part of Conservation Northwest’s initial interest in the fisher reintroduction project was to gain familiarity, knowledge and expertise for a successful wildlife recovery program.

“It’s a real mix of the work to repopulate fishers from a landscape they were extirpated from—fixing a wrong, healing a wound—and a research project to learn a lot about an elusive animal that remains somewhat of a mystery,” Werntz said.

The success of the fisher reintroduction project has led the pathway for other areas trying to do reintroductions. From understanding who should be involved and how to engage communities to developing the science and methodology, this collaborative project is a model for recovering wildlife across the region, and we’re glad to take part in it.

Fishers being released in the North Cascades on October 24, 2019. Photos: David Moskowitz, Permission Required for Use.