Last month Russ Talmo, our Rockies and Plains Field Technician, and I scrambled through dense undergrowth and up steep hills, post-holing through thigh deep snow in some areas, over a couple days of rain and shine. Hellllooo wildlife field work! We were on the hunt to find good habitat to set up “hair snare” stations — a benign tool biologists use to gather hair samples from all sorts of different animals. This time, we were setting up these stations to collect information on a sleek, rare, and agile creature called the fisher, an animal that we’re unlikely to ever see in person out here in the Rocky Mountains.
Hair snare stations use scent to lure an animal into investigating white plastic triangular boxes lined with brushes. In doing so, the brushes capture strands of their fur. Then we return in a few weeks to gather any hair on the brushes and send it to a genetics lab to determine what animal the hair belongs to. We’re mostly in search of hair from fishers, so when we select a site for the station, we try to think like a fisher. Fishers tend to rest and den in large, old trees, and they also prefer to run through big logs and downed branches along the forest floor. So we set the snares on the ground near those big logs or under large trees. We set up 38 of these hair snares!
So what exactly are fishers? The fisher (Martes pennanti) is a rare and agile forest hunter prized for its thick, soft fur. It is a member of the weasel family similar to otters, mink, and martens. Fishers live in forests containing old, large trees, where they prey on snowshoe hares and other small mammals and birds, and have a remarkable ability to successfully hunt porcupines. Despite their name, fishers do not prey on fish.
Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation groups filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in September 2013 seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the Northern Rockies fisher, a subspecies with very small populations in the West. The Service will have to give us their answer within one year. Fishers in the Northern Rockies are in danger due to their small numbers and isolation. Ongoing loss and fragmentation of their habitat and human-caused mortality put them even more at risk. Logging and outbreaks of fire, insects, and disease have vastly reduced and isolated their habitat, and continue to consume thousands of acres each year. Historically, intentional trapping and poisoning for their pelts eliminated fishers from much of their range. Today, fishers continue to die each year from a legal trapping season that continues in Montana, and from traps set for other species (called incidental trapping) throughout their range. Levels of incidental trapping of fishers in the Northern Rockies have increased alarmingly in recent years.
The region we selected for this monitoring survey in central/eastern Idaho near Missoula, Montana is one that in the past has contained numerous fishers, but recently, researchers have had considerable difficulty finding them. We thought we’d do what we could to find fishers by using this relatively cheap and easy hair snare monitoring methodology, putting published methods into practice to ensure our contribution is scientifically reliable and usable by researchers. Our results can be compared to a similar effort done 10 years ago, and we hope this will provide interesting information on how the fishers are currently doing in the area.
For the next couple months we will return every 3-4 weeks to those stations to renew the stinky lure and attractant, collect hair, and set it up for the next few weeks of hair collection. We’ll send the hair to the lab, and then we’ll contribute the information we’ve gathered to researchers and land managers in the area so they can learn more about the status of fishers in this important region. We’re interested in part because this information can help inform Defenders’ work in forest habitats to help in the conservation of fishers and other mid-sized carnivores in the Rockies. Stay tuned for late June, when we’ll be able to let you know the results!
Kylie Paul, Rockies & Plains Representative