Good sign for endangered species
A trail camera in the forests of the North Cascades recently captured a scene that warmed the hearts of wildlife biologists — a female fisher with four babies.
The fisher babies, called kits, are the first wild fishers to be born in the North Cascades in more than half a century, biologists believe. The trail camera took pictures last month of the mother carrying the kits in her mouth near her den in western Chelan County.
The mother — known as F105 or “Luna” — was released near Darrington in December 2018 as part of a program to restore fishers to the North Cascades, where they once thrived.
“Seeing her and her kits is a wonderful first indication that the North Cascades Ecosystem can support a reproductive population of fishers, and it’s a great sign for fisher recovery in Washington,” said Jeff Lewis, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
Fishers are about the size of a house cat and are members of the weasel family, related to minks, otters and wolverines. They are native to the forest of Washington, but were eliminated by the mid-1900s as a result of trapping and habitat loss. They have been listed as an endangered species in Washington State since 1998.
In 2018 a collaborative program was launched to restore fishers in the North Cascades National Park Service Complex and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. WDFW, the National Park Service, Conservation Northwest and the Calgary Zoo worked together to release 89 fishers in the North Cascades between 2018 and 2020, including the female recently photographed with her four kits.
“Seeing one fisher kit born in the wild North Cascades is a wonder; photos showing a group of wild kits is phenomenal,” said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director of Conservation Northwest. “This new family is an auspicious sign that these reintroduced fishers are finding a good home in the North Cascades.”
Since reintroduction, fishers have been detected within and around the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, throughout the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, in parts of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and on private lands as far east as Winthrop.
Sixty private landowners have established voluntary fisher conservation agreements on 3,318,283 acres of their lands in Washington, to help protect fishers wherever they find a place to live.
“Seeing these fishers find their place and thrive brings so much hope to this ecosystem,” said Jason Ransom, a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service. “It is a product of the kind of collaborate conservation we need to steward a healthy ecosystem, across boundaries.”
Reintroduction of fishers by releasing them into wild areas of Washington first began in 2008 in Olympic National Park and nearby areas, where 90 fishers were released between 2008 and 2010. The collaborative reintroduction effort also released 81 fishers in the southern Cascades in Mount Rainer National Park and Gifford Pinchot National Forest from 2015-2020.
The species is now established and successfully reproducing in the Olympics and Southern Cascades. More than 250 fishers have been released in Washington as part of the partnership to re-establish the species.
The fishers released in 2018 in the North Cascades were captured in Alberta, Canada. They underwent veterinary checkups at the Calgary Zoo and were equipped with radio transmitters to track their movements. Monitoring the fishers is supported by Conservation Northwest, which provides volunteers and remote cameras as part of its Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project.
“Bringing a species back to where they had once disappeared is an ongoing and challenging journey, so we’re elated to see fishers from Canada contribute to this important milestone,” said Jose Luis Postigo, Calgary Zoo population ecologist.
“As a conservation organization, we’re proud to have contributed our animal care, veterinary and scientific expertise to this initiative and we celebrate the unwavering support and dedication of all the communities and partners that made this happen,” Postigo said.
Fishers prey on small mammals — including mountain beavers, squirrels and snowshoe hares — and are among the few predators of porcupines. They thrive in older forests, like those on the Olympic Peninsula and west slopes of the Cascades, said Chase Gunnell of Conservation Northwest.
The best release sites provide continuous old forest habitat. Most fishers that have been released stay within 10-15 miles of their release site, Gunnell said, but others have ranged more widely — like the fishers that apparently traveled over the Cascade crest and have been detected in the Methow Valley.
Planning for fisher restoration began in 2002 when Conservation Northwest partnered with WDFW, the National Park Service and other federal, tribal and Canadian entities to consider strategies to bring fishers back to Washington. A state recovery plan was written in 2006 that included trapping wild fishers in British Columbia and Alberta for release in Washington.
The almost 20-year public-private partnership to restore fishers is a good example of a successful collaborative approach to wildlife conservation, Gunnell said.
Re-establishing viable populations of fishers in the Olympic and Cascade Mountains are steps toward removing fishers from the state’s endangered species list. The recovery plan for fisher reintroduction is on the WDFW website.
Funding for fisher reintroduction comes from the National Park Service, WDFW, Conservation Northwest, Calgary Zoo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington’s National Park Fund, Northwest Trek, state wildlife grants, and Washington state personalized license plates.