Northern Rockies Fisher is one step closer to protection under the Endangered Species Act
If you’re a fan of the Northern Rockies fisher, you probably know why we’re so excited. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally announced that this imperiled population of fishers may warrant federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Northern Rockies fisher, a cat-like member of the weasel family, has faced many challenges over the years, and we’ve been working for years to get these animals the protection they deserve. Defenders of Wildlife, along with several conservation allies, filed a petition to list the Northern Rockies fisher under the ESA in 2013, and we are thrilled to see the Service finally take some action toward protecting them.
What’s so special about the Northern Rockies fisher?
Fishers are rare and agile forest carnivores found only in North America. A relative of mink, otter and wolverine, fishers (Pekania pennanti) sport the thick soft fur, narrow bodies, sharp noses, and long bushy tails of the weasel family. They’re really very cute. They prey on a variety of small and medium-sized mammals and birds, and have a remarkable ability to successfully hunt porcupines. Despite their name, fishers do not eat fish.
Fishers are solitary, mostly nocturnal, and big travelers – they may cover many miles in their search for food. Fishers rest and den in hollow trees and logs, and may use holes in trees made by other animals. The Rocky Mountain population of fishers live in extensive, dense forests containing old, large trees. The presence of fishers in an ecosystem in the West is a great indicator of the health of the surrounding forest. Without large, interconnected swaths of mature trees, the fisher cannot survive.
Why are the Northern Rockies fishers struggling?
The fisher has been so reduced in its range and numbers in the Northern Rockies that today it is one of, if not the, rarest carnivore in the region. They nearly went extinct in the early 20th century because of uncontrolled trapping, logging of old-growth forests, and enormous forest fires.
Today, these fishers still have to contend with loss and deterioration of their forested habitat thanks to logging, insect infestation, disease and human development. And, as the climate changes and severe fire becomes more frequent throughout the West, they will likely lose even more of their habitat.
But more than any other threat, a dramatic increase in trapping is pushing these critters close to the brink. Despite their very low numbers, it is still legal in Montana to purposely trap fishers. And in Idaho, even though direct trapping is not allowed, incidental trapping (the accidental trapping of fishers when intending to catch something else) has reached an alarming high. Since fishers are curious by nature, they are especially vulnerable to traps set for other species such as marten or bobcat. Since 2000, at least 300 fishers have been trapped in Idaho alone, and 1/3 of those incidents occurred between 2012 and 2014. With fishers considered to be one of the rarest carnivores in the Rockies, there is no time to lose when it comes to protecting the Northern Rockies fisher.
So what happens next?
Conservation groups originally petitioned for Northern Rockies fisher listing under the Endangered Species Act in 2009, but the request was denied because levels of incidental trapping were lower at the time and we knew less about the habitat that fishers need to survive. As our knowledge about these animals improved and trapping conditions grew worse, we decided to try again, and the latest petition for protection was filed in September 2013. When the Service failed to respond to it after a whole year, our partners filed a lawsuit – just the kick in the pants the Service needed to act.
This latest announcement means that the Service believes the Northern Rockies fisher may warrant protection and it will now undertake a year-long status review to determine whether or not to grant protection. If the fishers are listed under the ESA, it would provide federal resources to promote fisher recovery. It could trigger a ban on trapping of these vulnerable animals in places where it is still legal (Montana) and could include new rules on modifying the traps set for other animals so that they’re less likely to catch fishers. A listing under the ESA could also prompt greater protections for the mature forests that make up the habitat that is critical for fishers’ survival. In short, it could make a world of difference for these imperiled creatures.
Bringing Fishers Back to Washington
We’re working with other groups to help Pacific fisher return to their forest habitat in the Pacific northwest. Check out the latest on this project, and catch a glimpse of fishers being released into the wild.