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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Fishers have returned to western Washington. Are the Selkirks next?

A fisher runs across a log after being released into the Cascades. Fishers are ferocious predators and nimble climbers that can rotate their paws nearly 180 degrees. (Paul Bannick / COURTESY)
By Ben Goldfarb For The Spokesman-Review

Pound for pound, the Northwest’s most ferocious predator is not the grizzly bear, the cougar or the gray wolf. Instead, it’s a stealthy, slender member of the weasel family no larger than a house cat: the fisher.

What fishers – tree-dwelling carnivores with bushy tails, rounded ears, and mocha-colored fur – lack in size, they make up in guts and guile. They are among the few animals that reliably prey on porcupines, dancing in circles around the lumbering rodents like light-footed boxers, slashing with teeth and retractable claws. In Maine, fishers have been known to kill lynx by sneaking up on the cats during blizzards, grabbing them by the throat, and holding on for dear life.

“Their personalities are bigger than their physical mass,” said Dave Werntz, science and conservation director at Conservation Northwest.

By the mid-19th century, however, fishers had begun to succumb to predators even more insatiable than themselves: white fur trappers, who claimed some 11,000 fishers annually throughout the 1840s. As the animals dwindled, demand for their luxuriant pelts only increased. Washington’s trappers earned $150 per skin in the early 1900s – a small fortune.

“If you caught a fisher, you didn’t have to work that winter,” said Jeff Lewis, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who leads the state’s fisher recovery efforts. “There wasn’t any furbearer worth more than them on land.”

Washington protected fishers in 1934, but it was too late. Industrial logging eliminated the old-growth trees in which fishers den and raise their kits. Plagued by trapping and habitat destruction, the species vanished from the state and from much of the country.

Before long, though, fishers commenced their comeback. Biologists released them into the Northern Rockies on five occasions between 1959 and 1991, reestablishing populations in Montana and Idaho. In New England, timber companies reintroduced fishers to prevent porcupines from devouring seedlings.

Today, fishers frolic in environments as urban as the Boston suburbs. In 2014, a New York Police Department officer photographed one strolling down the sidewalk in the Bronx, nonchalant as any rat.

“They’ve made a fantastic comeback,” said Cory Mosby, furbearer biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish & Game. “The population has seemingly recovered across portions of its historic range.”

Even as fishers bounced back elsewhere, Washington remained destitute. When the state published its recovery plan for the species in 2006, it called for reintroducing fishers to several intact blocks of public land that historically supported them. Over the past decade, biologists have released fishers into Olympic National Park, the South Cascades, and, this past winter, the North Cascades, with encouraging results.

“This is an opportunity to fix something that we screwed up,” Lewis said. “We can make this right because we still have the habitat.”

Yet the news is not entirely positive. While the effort surges forward in western Washington, Eastern Washington remains empty. According to a new study, the pint-sized predators have vanished from the Selkirks and Purcells, the rugged ranges at Washington’s junctions with Idaho and British Columbia. Now scientists are trying to figure out why fishers have disappeared from this seemingly prime tract of forest – and what it will take to bring them back.

Caught on camera

One bluebird day in mid-March, I join Jessie Roughgarden and Rory Trimbo, technicians with the Idaho Department of Fish & Game, on a fisher hunt. In Clarkia (population 97), 80 miles southeast of Coeur d’Alene, we hop onto Ski-Doos and zip into the woods, shuddering up a trail sugared in fresh powder. Coyote tracks weave through the glittering snow, and mountain chickadees whistle from roadside firs. After 7 miles we pull over, don snowshoes, and crunch into the forest.

Roughgarden and Trimbo are two of the 10 biologists who spent this winter canvassing the Idaho wilds for fishers, part of a massive study overseen by Mosby. I’ve come out for their final rounds of the season to gather hair snares and motion-activated cameras at some of the 21 sites they’ve been tasked with checking every month. They’ve had a slow season – only two fishers have appeared on their cameras. Still, knowing where fishers aren’t is just as important as knowing where they are.

“The ultimate goal is to get a snapshot of where we do and do not find fishers, how abundant they are, and how different vegetation communities factor in to where we see them,” Mosby said. He said the state planned to monitor 170 locations at various forest types and elevations, research that could provide valuable insight into the habits of this cryptic carnivore – and, perhaps, guide future reintroductions.

Although Roughgarden and Trimbo haven’t encountered many fishers, they’ve met plenty of bewildered Homo sapiens at North Idaho’s gas stations and grocery stores. Inform a stranger that you’re studying wolves or elk, and you’re liable to get an earful. Tell them that you’re researching fishers, and you tend to receive blank stares.

“I tell them it’s a midsized weasel, smaller than a wolverine and bigger than a marten,” Roughgarden said. “I get a lot of, ‘Huh, is that some kind of bobcat?’ ”

(One point of clarification: Although they’re often called “fisher cats,” fishers are not closely related to felines, nor do they eat fish. Their name comes from the word “fitch,” another moniker for the European polecat – which is itself not a cat, but a ferret. Yes, mammal nomenclature can get confusing.)

Despite their low expectations, Roughgarden and Trimbo can’t help getting excited when we reach the site. The enticing roadkill deer quarter that had hung from the “bait tree” has vanished. That’s not necessarily a fisher’s handiwork – at another site, Trimbo said, a single long-tailed weasel consumed an entire quarter by itself.

Their spirits perk up further, though, when they find tufts of dark fur clustered on an array of gun-cleaning brushes, the low-tech hair collectors they’ve affixed to the tree. Something has clearly been clambering up and down this fir.

“That’s a ton of hair,” Trimbo said. “That’s pretty sweet to see.”

Roughgarden scales an adjacent tree to reclaim the motion-activated camera. She plucks out the memory card and plugs a card reader into her phone. The first few photos depict the biologists themselves, setting up the gun brushes and hanging the deer quarter a month earlier. Roughgarden swipes through the pictures quickly.

Then: a dark critter squatting on its haunches alongside the tree, its body propped up by a thick tail. They peer in.

“It’s a fisher!” Roughgarden exclaims.

She swipes again. In the next photo, the fisher is clinging to the tree, agile as a giant squirrel. (Fishers are nimble climbers that can rotate their paws nearly 180 degrees, allowing them to race down trees headfirst.) One more swipe and now it’s a night shot, the eyes gleaming in the camera’s flash like demonic headlights, the animal at once furtive and fierce.

I wonder aloud what this fisher was doing here, in a patch of private timberland that lacks old-growth trees. Trimbo nods to the rabbit tracks scurrying over the snow.

“Logging land has a lot of young trees which rabbits like, and fishers like rabbits,” he said. “Sometimes you put a camera where you don’t think you’re going to find one, and they turn up.”

‘More isolated than we thought’

Few people have paid more attention to the Northern Rockies’ fishers than Michael Lucid, a biologist at the Idaho Department of Fish & Game.

From 2010 to 2014, Lucid and colleagues set up 497 bait stations over 23,000 square miles, collecting photos and hair samples from fishers, wolverines, lynx and other carnivores. The survey centered around the Idaho Panhandle, encompassing stretches of western Montana, southern British Columbia and northeastern Washington.

In some regions, Lucid found, fishers endured. The West Cabinet range, which straddles North Idaho’s border with Montana, appeared to support a relative “fisher hotspot,” a cluster of up to 300 animals with a fairly diverse gene pool. Fishers were so common there, he said, that the project’s volunteers “went from not knowing fishers at all, to thinking they were really cool, to being kind of bored with yet another fisher.”

In the Selkirk and Purcell Mountains, the story was considerably grimmer. When Lucid had surveyed the Selkirks a decade earlier, he’d reliably detected fishers in several locations. By 2011, the population had dwindled to a single aging male. Given that the typical fisher lifespan is around seven years, it’s a good bet the species has departed the ecosystem and, with it, the whole of Eastern Washington.

Lucid’s research, published this winter in the journal Conservation Genetics, casts doubt over fishers’ future in the Northern Rockies. The carnivores, his genetic analysis revealed, are effectively scattered across an archipelago of forest patches, prevented from mingling by an intervening ocean of human civilization. Although scientists have tracked grizzlies, deer and other creatures transiting between the Cabinets and the Selkirks via the McArthur Lake Wildlife Corridor, the patchy strip of habitat that runs between Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry, fishers appear to use the corridor less readily.

“It turns out they’re a lot more isolated than we thought,” Lucid said.

The prognosis for all these stranded fishers isn’t promising. As development and climate change shrink fishers’ range, even relatively robust populations like the West Cabinets’ may shrivel toward extinction. In his paper, Lucid concluded that the region’s fishers likely “will not reach a sufficient level of gene flow without human intervention.”

In other words: Fishers won’t return to the Selkirks on their own.

Lucid isn’t sure why fishers vacated the Selkirks – perhaps they’re falling victim to an “unidentified mortality source,” or maybe the habitat isn’t as good as it seems. Regardless, he’s adamant that reintroduction can’t proceed without further research.

“If we’re going to release these animals into the Selkirks someday, we need to have some sort of a battle plan to figure out what’s happening to them,” he said. Wasting limited resources on a heavy-handed relocation that’s destined to fail, he points out, deprives other needy species. “We really need to think about the costs and what we want to achieve.”

In the Cascades, a spreading success

On Dec. 5, 2018, a crowd of avid onlookers watched six furry missiles explode from wooden crates, weave between trees and leap over logs, and, within seconds, melt into the damp undergrowth of North Cascades National Park. Fishers had returned to another landscape.

Relocating fishers is a delicate operation. The half-dozen that bounded into the North Cascades originated in Alberta, where the animals are so abundant they often turn up as roadkill. Captured alive by trappers, they were transported to the Calgary Zoo, where veterinarians checked their health and outfitted them with radio transmitters, then flown in customized wooden boxes to Abbotsford, a British Columbia town just across the border from Bellingham.

Biologists then drove them far up the Skagit River watershed and at last turned them loose. From flight to release, the operation took scarcely 12 hours.

“We want them to have plenty of time to get accustomed before it gets dark,” said Dave Werntz of Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit that, along with WDFW, the National Park Service and other groups, spearheads Washington’s fisher reintroduction efforts. “It’s all about reducing the stress on the animals to give them the best shot.”

Over the past decade, Washington has elevated fisher reintroduction to an art form. Between 2008 and 2010, the state released 90 fishers on the Olympic Peninsula, where the animals have since produced several generations of offspring. From 2015 to 2017, biologists released another 69 into the South Cascades, including Mount Rainier National Park. Two dozen more scampered into the North Cascades this winter. Ultimately, Werntz said, the goal is to relocate 80 fishers into both the North and South Cascades.

“It’s just awesome to see them come back to our territory,” said Hanford McCloud, council member at the Nisqually Indian Tribe, who took part in the Mount Rainier release.

Historically, McCloud said, the Northwest’s Native people prized the species for its pelt and its moxie. Tribes from British Columbia to the Columbia Basin traded the skins of fishers and other mammals, and chiefs wore the fisher’s fur, imbuing themselves with the creature’s spirit. The fisher retains its ability to inspire awe: McCloud said the Nisqually youth who participated in the 2016 reintroduction at Mount Rainier still talk about the joy of watching the slender weasels burst from their crates.

“This is another great step forward into what it was like for the indigenous to gather and hunt in this watershed,” McCloud said.

Tara Chestnut, a National Park Service biologist at Mount Rainier, said it’s too early to declare victory in the South Cascades. Still, researchers have found breeding dens each year, a promising sign. While some fishers have inevitably perished – hit by cars, struck down by infection, slain by cougars – more than half the transplants survived their first year, a crucial measure if the population is to sustain itself.

“We need to have multiple generations of fishers reproducing before we can say they’ve successfully recolonized, but so far they have exceeded all of our benchmark goals,” Chestnut said.

What’s more, they’re spreading. A photographer recently captured a fisher pacing the snow near Plain, miles from any release site. Chestnut said that animals released in Mount Rainier have traveled nearly to the Columbia River Gorge.

“We’re relying on the public to tell us when they see fishers so we can verify and document those locations,” Chestnut said. To be sure, identifying fishers isn’t always easy. “I’ve been sent a lot of marten pictures,” Chestnut said, “but what that tells me is that fishers are on people’s radar.”

The Selkirk conundrum

The Olympics and the Cascades clearly represent Washington’s best blocks of habitat, but they’re not the only place where fishers might survive. When the state published its plan for restoring the species in 2006, it included a third potential recovery area: the Selkirks. The range’s “mature and old growth cedar/hemlock forests and forested riparian types,” scientists wrote, “likely provide fisher habitat in northeastern Washington.”

At the time, Werntz said, the Selkirks appeared primed for fisher recovery. Biologists believed that populations were flourishing in Idaho and that the creatures were well-connected across the Northern Rockies. “There’s definitely potential in the Selkirks,” Werntz said. “You have protected wilderness areas and big blocks of federal land that are managed for grizzly bear recovery and mountain caribou.”

Today, though, WDFW’s Lewis, who authored the recovery plan, feels less confident in the Selkirks’ suitability. Lewis points out that fishers wander widely in search of food, mates and den trees. In the Olympics, the average female roamed a home range of 20 square miles, and males more than 30 square miles. The Selkirks may be too small and isolated to sustain such mobile creatures.

“If they haven’t recolonized on their own, maybe that’s an indication that it shouldn’t be our highest priority,” Lewis said. “In the absence of good occupancy in British Columbia and Idaho, that corner of Washington would be a little itty-bitty island that could easily blink out if you reintroduced them.”

Still, Lewis isn’t ruling anything out. He said Mosby’s camera-trap study just across the Idaho border may shed more light on why fishers haven’t wandered back to the Selkirks unassisted, and whether reintroduced animals could thrive there.

“Idaho’s surveys will help give us the answer on whether this is an area that we should explore harder,” he said.

Why does it matter whether or not fishers return to the Selkirks? For one thing, Mosby said, they’re an important member of the “mesocarnivore guild” – bobcats, martens, coyotes and other midsized meat-eaters – that play a crucial role in controlling rabbits and rodents.

“Ecology is fascinating and complex, and we’re just starting to peel those pieces apart,” he said.

To many scientists, though, fishers’ value is less biological than existential: They are, simply, extraordinary creatures that make the Pacific Northwest’s landscapes wilder and more whole. Their extirpation from our region was a historic injustice, one that we now have the opportunity – and, perhaps, the obligation – to rectify. The sheer improbability of coming across such an elusive beast only makes the prospect of an encounter more thrilling.

“They can kill a porcupine, they can climb a tree, they can cover 20 miles in a day – they’re amazing and fascinating in a lot of ways,” Lewis said. “I almost feel disbelief that it’s actually possible to see one now. They were gone and now they’re back.”