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Washington gets closer to restoring a fuzzy, charismatic carnivore you’ve probably never heard of

A fisher escapes from a transport box at Longmire Stewardship Campground into the snowy forests of Mount Rainier National Park on Jan. 10, 2020. (Conservation Northwest) 

 

This past Friday, 76 biologists, ecologists and wildlife advocates trekked through thick snow to Longmire Stewardship Campground in Mount Rainier National Park with small wooden crates. After the group opened the boxes, four mammals about the size of a house cat scampered into the surrounding wilderness, completing a critical conservation milestone 12 years in the making.

Since 2008, a coalition of dozens of biologists, advocates, tribal officials, zoo professionals and others has worked to restore the fisher — a member of the weasel family that disappeared from Washington in the early 20th century — to its natural range through strategic releases of wild Canadian fishers within the three Washington national parks. The four fishers released into Mount Rainier National Park on Friday helped the project reach its population targets for fishers released per park: So far, 90 have been released in the Olympics, 85 in the North Cascades and 81 in Mount Rainier.

Principal co-investigator Dr. Jeff Lewis, a conservation biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and colleagues set minimum population targets based on successful reintroduction programs elsewhere; programs with at least 80 fishers tend to self-sustain.

While the mustelid is obscure to many, its presence offers benefits to the ecosystems it once roamed in.

“They’re so secretive. Even where they are, people don’t know about them,” Lewis says. “And they’re at least as cool as a wolverine! At least!”

“It’s nearly impossible to fully grasp each and every subtle consequence of their presence,” says Shannon Kachel, a Panthera conservation scientist who was present at a release in 2017. “Every single little interaction ripples through the food web in ways that are hard to predict, but they all add up.”

The release on Friday occurred within a section of the campground reserved for the Nisqually Indian Tribe.

“The fact that the Nisqually Tribe is allowing us to release a fisher into that area is an incredibly generous and powerful gesture on their part, of honoring the restoration and the return of the species to the landscape,” says Dr. Tara Chestnut, an ecologist at Mount Rainier and principal co-investigator. Calls to Nisqually representatives were not returned.

A fisher sprints into the forests of North Cascades National Park on October 24, 2019. Most fishers, Dr. Jeff Lewis says, sprint straight into the understory — but a rare few run right up trees.

For Lewis, Chestnut and their collaborators, the project has been all-consuming. But the promise of an intact ecosystem complete with carnivores that manage other species’ population levels drove them to the finish line, especially in the wake of recent rising animal death tolls around the world.

“All of those things I think just emotionally take a toll on all of us,” Chestnut says. “To reach this milestone, it sheds a light of positivity on some of the conservation successes that we’re having, and that it’s not all gloom and doom.”

For many involved, the fisher release project has marked milestones in their personal lives.

“My son released the first fisher back into the Cascades and he’s been sort of an ad hoc part of our team ever since,” says Dr. Jason Ransom, a National Park Service senior wildlife biologist and principal co-investigator. “He was pretty small when we started, and now he can carry the box.”

With this release and possibly one or two more by the end of the month, the release phase will have wound down. The team hopes to release seven or eight more in the North Cascades in January, but there are no releases planned after that, for any of the sites. Lewis says monitoring for the project will likely continue into 2021.

Slightly smaller than a Maine Coon, with a face like an elongated teddy bear and a musk Lewis describes as “tangy, rancid vanilla,” fishers closely resemble other weasel family members like martens and minks. Their toughness rivals their cousin, the wolverine: They are one of the few animals that can successfully prey upon porcupines.

Fishers historically thrived in low- to mid-elevation forests in Washington’s western half, northeastern corner and in pockets of the southeast, where they denned in craggy old-growth trees. But English settlers found big money in their pelts. A commercial trapping ban in 1933 came too late, and logging and development carved up much of the forests remaining fishers needed to reproduce.

“We didn’t have any reliable detections of wild fishers since 1969,” says Lewis, who has studied the animal for over two decades. “There was one detected at Fort Lewis, but that one had escaped from Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, so that one didn’t really count.”

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