Spring 2017

Reappearing Act

By Kate Siber
Photograph by NPS Photo by Kevin Bacher

The elusive fisher is making its way back to the Northwest with a little help from its friends.

The crowd buzzed with anticipation as Hanford McCloud, a member of the Nisqually Tribal Council in Washington, pulled open the door of a simple wooden box. Inside crouched a rare forest predator the size of a large house cat. The audience, about 100 locals, biologists, tribal members and First Nations visitors, watched with smartphones ready.   

It was an overcast December day, and they had come to see biologists from the National Park Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Conservation Northwest reintroduce fishers to Mount Rainier National Park for the first time. From inside the box, the fisher — which came from Canada — surveyed its new home: a damp, mossy forest fragrant with decay. After a moment, with just a little coaxing, it bolted and vanished into the woods.  

“It was awesome to see ’em scamper out of there, a little scared, a little unsure,” said McCloud. “They took to the terrain with such speed that all you saw was a furry blur.” 

Other than 23 individuals released the previous winter in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, fishers hadn’t roamed the southern Cascade Range in more than 70 years. The reintroduction, which NPCA strongly supported, is part of a multiyear effort to return them to their old grounds in three national parks and across the state. 

“I never get tired of watching them,” said Jeff Lewis, a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It just feels like a really good thing. We’re fixing something we didn’t do right before because we didn’t know better.” 

Before the arrival of European Americans, fishers roamed low- and mid-elevation forests from coast to coast, but it’s been a rough two centuries for them. Hunters and trappers killed them for their luxurious pelts while development and logging shrank their habitat. More recently, farmers illegally growing marijuana (largely in California) have poisoned fishers by using pesticides to control rats. Unlike other mammalian predators, fishers also have an unusual problem: Because they’re elusive, few people know enough about them to care about their fate. “It’s just super rare to see them,” said Lewis. “They’re incredibly secretive. It’s like seeing     a leprechaun.” 

Once you get to know them, however, these weasel relatives are charismatic. They’re scrappy, agile hunters, preying on small and midsized mammals as well as carrion, birds and insects, and they’re one of the few animals that can take down a porcupine without turning into a pincushion. 

In 1998, the fisher was listed as endangered by the state of Washington after 60 years of protection from trapping hadn’t boosted the population. In 2008, the Park Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Conservation Northwest, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and British Columbia Ministry of Environment teamed up to reintroduce fishers to Olympic National Park. Over a three-year period, 90 fishers were released. Since then, the population has spread through the peninsula and spawned multiple generations. By the time the Candian trapping season ends this year, the agencies will have released a total of around 70 fishers in the southern Cascades. This fall, they will begin to release an additional 80 animals in North Cascades National Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, a project that will take two years to complete. 

The program’s success has inspired other agencies in Oregon, Washington and southern British Columbia to consider reintroducing fishers using the same methods, which are effective but not easy. Biologists hire fur trappers in central British Columbia to capture the animals, offering between $700 and $900 for a healthy fisher — by comparison, a pelt would fetch $40 or so. A veterinarian checks each one and implants a radio transmitter the size of a shotgun shell. Then a driver escorts the fishers 16 hours south to Washington. (It’s not uncommon for a customs agent to have no idea what a fisher is.) 

After they’re released, biologists track them from a plane. If they believe a female is using a den during the birthing season, they travel into the wilderness on foot to set up cameras and determine whether she has kits. Last spring, they did not observe any kits — common for the first year of reintroduction — but they were encouraged by the fishers’ survival rate. For Lewis, the de facto granddaddy of fisher biology in the state, the efforts already have been worth it. 

“The only thing stopping this from being a super-duper feel-good thing is not a lot of people know about fishers,” Lewis said. “Inch by inch, we’re hoping they’re falling in love with them.” 

About the author

  • Kate Siber

    Kate Siber is a freelance writer and correspondent for Outside magazine, based in Durango, Colorado. Her writing also has appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The New York Times.