Love the Forest? Save the Fisher.

By Seth Heller

Fisher cat – polecat – pekan – martes pennanti – woolang. The pacific fisher’s abundance of monikers contrasts their slim existence in Oregon. Despite an alarmingly low presence in the Oregon wild, the pacific fisher remains stubbornly labeled a species of ‘least concern’. Given the incredible rate of poisoning due to illegal marijuana growers, it’s a title that should give pause to conservationists throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The pacific fisher’s dark clever eyes, sleek and muscular frame of mottled brown and black, and long bushy brush-like tail were once as common to Oregon as the hollows of the Douglas firs they kept as their homes. Fishers are shy animals; they prefer to live in isolated old-grow ancient forests. They are perhaps best known as one of the few animals that hunt porcupines – a testament to their tenacity and cunning.

The pacific fisher is member of the mustelid family, better known as weasels. They are native to northern North America. In Canada, they call a massive area sprawling from Nova Scotia in the east to British Columbia in the west, home. In the western United States, they historically occupied a narrow north-to-south corridor that snakes down through Washington into western Oregon, ending in a handful of small pocket populations in the wild mountains of the Sierra Nevada range.

Feisty and courageous, legendary Native American tribes including the Algonquin and Chippewa held the fisher in high regard, painting them as the heroes of native folktales – the Gitchi Ojig (Great Fisher) legend tells how the fisher brought summer to the world, before ascending to the sky to take the sparkling-silver constellation of the big dipper in the night sky.

The expansion of the American west coincided with the dramatic reduction of the fisher’s habitat range. Demand for pelts was frenzied and fur trappers leapt into the woods. Roads continually crawled across fisher habitat, paved veins through which an adventurous population flowed out into previously pristine and uninhabited wilderness of the American West. The fisher cat habitat continued to contract throughout the hectic population surge, eventually becoming the bones of its former self that we recognize today.

There are currently two fisher populations in Oregon. The Klamath Mountains’ fisher population extends down into northern California, which holds the bulk of this extended concentration. The second population is in the southern Cascades around Crater Lake National Park.

Recognizing the plight of the pacific fisher, repopulation efforts have occurred several times in the past 50 or so years. Many of Oregon’s fishers are descendants of reintroduction efforts of 1961 and 1977-1981 in British Columbia and Minnesota. More recent reintroductions in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula (2008-2010) and California’s northern Sierra Nevada range (2009) have been encouragingly successful.

The roads that enclosed the fishers are long built. Through the fur trade experienced swings in demand throughout the 20th century, the price of fisher pelt has stayed low since the mid-1940s, suggesting that demand will follow suit.

Though it would seem that the best days are behind the fisher, a strange and menacing illegal industry has risen to claim the top spot as their greatest adversary.

The mellow vibes of legal marijuana culture are a stark contract from the dangerous illegally-grown cannabis farms that are prevalent in the Pacific Northwest. Despite marijuana’s legalization in Oregon and Washington, and medical status in California, illegal growing has continued unabated. These farms are dangerous for adventurous and unwary hikers; however they are literally poisonous for fishers.

Anticoagulant rodenticides (ARs) are a popular lethal solution for large pop-growing operations. ARs kill by interfering with the “synthesis of vitamin K dependent blood-clotting factors in the liver”, which eventually causes anemia, fatigue, difficulty breathing, and hemorrhaging from the nose and gums.

The mice and other small rodents that these growers target happen to be the favorite prey of the pacific fisher. Once ingested, a rodent can live up to seven days, plenty of time for a fisher to make a meal of it. Second-generation ARs such as Brodifacoum are particularly toxic – they are usually deadly after a single ingestion.

Illegal marijuana growers love to plant in remote, steep, mountainous areas – the same kind of land that the fisher loves to call home. Fishers face an extremely high rate of poisoning due to this unfortunate overlap. A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) study discovered that a potential 95 percent of fishers will be exposed to ARs over the next 40 years. Similarly, University of California, Davis, researchers recently found that 79 percent of the fishers they autopsied during their study had been exposed to ARs.

In Oregon, the toxic marijuana fields present an especially large hurdle for fishers. In testimony before the Oregon legislature's committee on Measure 91 implementation, Oregon Wild reviewed the dangers of illegal public lands marijuana cultivation and species like fisher and spotted owl, and highlighted the opportunity for the state to protect these species through a marijuana certification process. Our state has one of the largest concentrations of illegal growers in the nation – even Mexican cartels have been implicated by the feds in local operations. The fishers vs. the cartels… think about it for a minute.

However, the pacific fisher could have the law on its side. Though currently protected by a flimsy ‘species of least concern’ conservation status, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the opportunity to reclassify the pacific fisher, potentially giving it a much stronger set of legal armor.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) recommended a reclassification of the fisher in a 2008 petition. The California Fish and Game Commission batted away their request in 2010 (without conducting a full scientific review), so the CBD launched a lawsuit against the state and won. Picking up momentum, the CBD filed another lawsuit, this time demanding that the fisher be protected under the Endangered Species Act. This lawsuit is pending – a decision will be dictated in April of 2016.

Fisher by Greg Trouslot

Oregon Wild (OW) has long been on the front lines of the fight to reclassify the fisher. An original signer of the ESA petition to list in 2000, OW continues to adamantly support relisting the fisher. Oregon Wild’s own Wendell Wood organized 22 other conservation groups to sign onto a 1998 appeal in which he raised fisher concerns as one of the primary reasons for halting the Pelican Butte timber sale. Oregon Wild members Greg Trouslot and his wife Linda Garrision were able to photograph a fisher in the late 1990s at Rocky Point, at the base of Pelican Butte. This documentation succeeded in stopping the last planned ski development on Pelican Butte.

If the fisher is reclassified as “Threatened”, it will be up to the USFWS to decide which protections to shield them with. Not all of the endangered species securities are required to be enacted – instead, the USFWS will pick and choose them based on their recovery needs.

Fortunately, the establishment of ‘critical habitat’ regulations are non-negotiable. This simply means that all land, water, and air adjustments that are deemed necessary to save the fisher would be reviewed and enacted. Remember: the fisher loves to make its home in old growth forests in secluded areas, far away from roads and development. So: love the forest? Save the fisher.



Photo Credits: 
Unless otherwise noted, fisher photos courtesy of USFWS