The seven newest residents of Gifford Pinchot National Forest darted into the rain-soaked, fern-covered forest Thursday morning, the first of multiple releases to reintroduce the fisher to the South Cascades.
Released from wooden transport boxes, the chocolate-colored fishers bounded across a small creek and quickly disappeared, drawing oohs and ahhs from the nearly 100 people on hand to watch at the site south of Randle.
“It was exciting,” 9-year-old Abigail Sympson of Randle said after she helped release one of the animals. “I was hoping it would be safe in the forest.”
The release is part of a multiagency effort to reintroduce the fisher —members of the weasel family, related to otters, badgers and wolverines —in Washington.
The first phase took place from 2008 to 2010 with the release of 90 fishers in Olympic National Park. While there is no count of those animals, they have spread across the Olympic Peninsula and are reproducing.
Adult fishers weigh eight to 12 pounds, with males weighing twice as much as females. Their long, slim bodies can reach 3 feet long.
Highly valued for their fur, fishers were trapped until they no longer existed in Washington by the 1940-50s. The state listed them as an endangered species in 1998. The reintroduction plan was finalized in 2006.
This is the beginning of a much bigger story. This project is proof that we can make a difference.
Tara Chestnut, ecologist at Mount Rainier National Park
Abigail Sympson was one of several children who on Thursday lifted the boards that allowed the fishers out of their wooden transport boxes. Just the night before she had completed a home-school report on the animals.
Just as excited was Tara Chestnut, an ecologist at Mount Rainier National Park. She was part of the four-person team who made the 13-hour drive Wednesday from Lake Williams, in central British Columbia, where the animals were trapped.
“A lot of people have been using the word amazing, and it is,” Chestnut said. “The word I might choose is hopeful. This is the beginning of a much bigger story. This project is proof that we can make a difference.”
The $800,000 project calls for the release of 80 fishers during the next two winters in the South Cascades and Mount Rainier National Park. After that, another 80 animals will be released in the North Cascades. The timing of the next release depends on how soon more animals are trapped.
Each animal was implanted with a radio transmitter, about the size of a shotgun shell, that will allow researchers to track the fishers from the air and on the ground during the two-year life of the transmitter.
Researchers have already discovered the animals have a larger home range in Washington, as much as eight times larger than fishers in California, said Zach Radmer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
They also travel quite a distance. Radmer said one animal traveled from the Olympic Peninsula to Capital State Forest outside Olympia.
160 The number of fishers to be released in the South and North Cascades
Those involved in the Cascades reintroduction are applying lessons learned from the Olympic releases, Radmer said. They are shortening the time between releases, and using sites closer together, all to make it easier for the animals to find each other and reproduce.
Asher Sympson, Abigail’s 12-year-old brother, was excited about the release, but also had a practical outlook.
“I’m looking forward to seeing them later on, when on a walk or something like that,” he said. “As long as they stay away from our chickens.”
Jeff Lewis of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife said the Sympson chickens should be safe, as fishers are shy animals and prefer the protection of a forest canopy. They feed mainly on small mammals and birds.
Lewis said the goal is to release enough fishers so they reestablish a population in the Cascades.
“It would be nice to see one if you’re out hiking some day,” he said.
The reintroduction is a crucial role the National Park Service and its partners fulfill, said Randy King, superintendent at Mount Rainier National Park.
“It sends a powerful message that through a collective effort, we can restore a species,” he said. “You spend a lot of time trying to protect what you have. So to get a chance to do something like this is special. It’s a rare opportunity in a career to see a moment like this.”
Mitch Friedman said Thursday’s release was important for the ecosystem and future generations. He is the executive director of Conservation Northwest, which was a partner for the Olympic releases.
“If the mountains and forests could talk, they’d say welcome back fisher,” Friedman said. “We’re restoring an important piece of the ecosystem and our shared natural heritage.
“In a world where not everything is going well, we can make things better, there can be good news like this.”
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640