Have you ever been called a “weasel”? It might be a high compliment if you consider their status in the animal kingdom!
Weasels are ferocious and swift predators in the family Mustelidae. These amazing and remarkably diverse critters are all basically the same; short legs, sharp eyes and teeth, very sensitive noses and explosive speed and agility. They are adept at capturing different prey species from shrews, mice and birds, to fish, and, in the case of wolverines, deer. Nearly every basic habitat in Washington has a specially adapted weasel: arboreal (marten); skittering through forest undergrowth (long-tailed weasel), cruising high mountain snow fields (wolverine), burrowing underground (badger), living on the ocean (sea otter) or surfing the rapids and swimming after prey in rivers (otter). There are 10 weasel species in Washington, all marvelous in their own way, and all on our landscape today, in part thanks to efforts by determined professionals.
Fishers are the native weasel of low to mid elevation forests. They are a medium-sized weasel, about the size of a house cat, a rich chocolate-dark brown in color and live in complex forest habitats full of down wood, snags and large trees. (Body length, about 36” with tail, and weight, 8-10 pounds). They are slightly larger than marten, who tend to live at higher elevations.
Fisher were extirpated in Washington many years ago due to overharvest, animal control efforts, loss of habitat and the species’ vulnerability to trapping (weasels are suckers for a good scent lure). Wildlife surveys in the 1990s and early 2000s detected no fishers anywhere in Washington. A state recovery plan identified the need to reintroduce these animals if they were to occur in Washington. Efforts to achieve this goal are ongoing, with two releases completed and monitoring ongoing. This work has been successful to the point that WDFW is reaching out to landowners for help with this remarkable effort to reestablish a native species.
In 2008, WDFW, the US Geologic Survey, Conservation Northwest, the British Columbia Ministry of Environment and the National Park Service worked together to conduct the first fisher reintroduction in Olympic National Park. This was followed by another set of releases in the South Cascade Mountains in fall of 2015. All animals were relocated from British Columbia in cooperation with the BC Trappers Association. In 2017, reproduction was documented near Mount Rainier National Park. Fisher reintroduction is shaping up to be a significant success story.
Fishers need forested habitats with abundant small mammal populations (such as mice, voles and squirrels) provided by full canopies, a rich understory, snags and down logs. These habitats are easily provided in well-managed woodlands that include habitat diversity elements such as snags, Habitat or slash piles, and down logs.
The fisher is a candidate for federal species listing due to its rarity across the U.S. landscape. It is still abundant enough in parts of Canada to allow trapping. The reintroduction efforts in Washington state are hoped to result in sustainable populations of this animal in western Washington.
Role of Forestland Owners
The natural range of the species in Washington is now well-occupied by humans, including cities, highways, subdivisions and small forest land ownerships. Our small forest woodlands occupy a key portion of the range of this potentially recovered species. They can quietly exist alongside people as they are small, and feed largely on forestland rodents.
How can the small forest landowner help? The US Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with WDFW is offering a program whereby landowners can sign up and agree to protect fishers if they occur on their lands. In return, the landowner receives protection from any future land use restrictions that could come from fishers being present. This pact is called a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurance (CCAA) and is very straightforward. Some of the terms of the CCA as listed by WDFW are:
- Work with WDFW wildlife managers to monitor fishers and their dens in the event that a den site is found on one’s property.
- Avoid harming or disturbing fishers and their young associated with active denning sites (March to September).
- Report den sites and sick, injured, or dead fishers on one’s property.
A WDFW factsheet explains more about this program.
This is of interest to small forest landowners on the west slope of the Cascades because as the fisher reestablishes itself on the landscape, awareness of the habitat needs of this species, and landowner cooperation, will become essential to the future of this amazing animal.
Fishers are no threat to normal workings of family forest lands, (unless you happen to be a squirrel or a mouse!) and can provide a natural control over damaging rodents in tree farms. Returning this animal to our ecosystem will restore ecological function and a little piece of the amazing richness of Washington’s forests.
For more information on the fisher and the CCAA, please visit the WDFW website, or contact WDFW’s Gary Bell at (360) 902-2412.
And as always, feel free to contact me with questions or stories about wildlife on your forested woodland. Especially if you think you saw a fisher, or have a photo of one in the wild.
by Ken Bevis, DNR Stewardship Wildlife Biologist, Ken.Bevis@dnr.wa.gov