The reintroduction of the fisher into the South Cascades, including Mount Rainier National Park, could begin as soon as this week.
Wildlife scientists with the National Park Service, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, United State Geological Survey and other organizations are waiting for trappers in central British Columbia to gather enough animals to begin the program.
Related to pine martens and wolverines in the weasel family, the fisher has been missing from the Cascades ecosystem since about the mid-1900s, said Jeff Lewis, meso-carnivore conservation biologist with the state wildlife agency.
Without proper wildlife management controls, the fisher was overexploited and eventually disappeared from the ecosystem, Lewis said. Extensive surveys done between 1990 and 2004 failed to find any in the animal’s historic range.
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The state agency began studying the possibility of reintroducing fishers in Washington in 2002. The environmental assessment for the Cascades reintroduction was released in August 2013.
The Cascades reintroduction effort can finally move forward because the final permit, involving First Nations and the Canadian government, was obtained last month.
Now officials are waiting for trappers in the area of Williams Lake in British Columbia, about 225 miles north of Vancouver, to bring enough animals to a holding facility in that area.
“Our target is to release five at a time,” said Tara Chestnut, ecologist Mount Rainier National Park. “We want several that can be released at the same time, so they can claim territory. The strategy is so the animals can find each other. We want them to encounter each other.
“That approach is important so the males and females meet and breed,” Chestnut said. “If we can put them close enough together, we think they’ll have a better chance of finding each other.”
The goal is to release 40 animals in the Southern Cascades this winter, and another 40 next winter. If enough animals are trapped, the first 25 will be released outside the park and the final 15 inside the park.
Planning documents have identified seven release sites within the watersheds of the Cowlitz, Lewis and Nisqually rivers, including near the Ohanapecosh Campground in the park.
Another 40 animals would be released the next winter. After that, the effort will move into the North Cascades, including the national park there.
A similar reintroduction has already taken place at Olympic National Park. From January 2008 to February 2010, 50 female and 40 male fishers were relocated to the park.
Some of those fishers have bred and had kits. Monitoring has shown the released adults have visited most parts of the Olympic Peninsula.
Restoring the fisher to its historic range will help restore the resiliency of the Cascade ecosystem, Chestnut and Lewis said.
“This is a great example of an easy solution. The habitat for these animals still exists, it remains intact,” Chestnut said. “But the likelihood they would repopulate the area on their own was pretty slim.”
“Because we have habitat in its historical range, we just have to get the animal back there,” Lewis said.
“Ecosystems are really complicated with all sorts of interactions going on. A more intact, more complete ecosystem is more resilient to change. If we can put the fisher back to where it once was, we will have a more fully intact ecosystem that will function as it historically did,” he added.
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640
Family: The fisher is the fifth largest member of the weasel family in North America.
Size: Adults weigh 4-12 pounds, with males weighing twice as much as females. They have long, slim bodies that can reach 3 feet long.
Lifespan: About 7 years.
Habitat: They can be found in closed canopy forests in low to mid elevations. They raise their kits in large live trees, snags and fallen logs.
Diet: They will eat a variety of prey, including snowshoe hares, voles, birds and porcupines. They also eat insects, nuts and berries.
Of note: Fishers are the only native carnivore considered wiped out of the Cascades in the state.