Fishers in Managed Woodlands of Western Washington

Fisher.
Fisher. Photo. John Jacobsen/Wash. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife.

Predators. The word conjures up visions of fierce cougars or grizzly bears sneaking around in the dark looking for human-sized prey animals. But what about the more diminutive predators, such as fishers, that eat small mammals, fish and birds?

Fishers are members of the family Mustelidae, which also includes weasels, marten, mink, otter, wolverine and several other predators. These are a remarkable assemblage of similarly built critters: short legs, sharp eyes and teeth, highly sensitive noses and explosive speed and agility. They are adept at catching many different prey species, from shrews, mice and birds to fish and, in the case of wolverines, deer. They also a diverse lot with many different lifestyles that can include climbing trees, skittering through forest undergrowth, cruising high mountain snow fields, burrowing underground or rapidly swimming after prey.

Fishers are a unique forest-dwelling mustelid. They are a medium-sized weasel, about the size of a house cat. They are a rich chocolate-dark brown in color and reside in low- to mid-elevation forest habitats. With a body length of about 36” include tail, and weighing between 8 and 10 pounds, fishers are slightly larger than marten, which tend to live at higher elevations.

Fishers disappeared from Washington forests decades ago due to overharvesting for their fur, habitat destruction and their vulnerability to trapping (weasels are suckers for a good scent lure). After wildlife surveys in the 1990s and early 2000s detected no fishers in Washington, a state recovery plan identified the need to reintroduce these animals to the state.

In 2008, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), US Geologic Survey, Conservation Northwest, British Columbia Ministry of Environment and National Park Service combined efforts to organize a fisher reintroduction release in Olympic National Park. Another set of releases in the South Cascades began in the fall of 2015. All of the released animals were relocated from British Columbia in cooperation with the BC Trappers Association. In 2017, reproduction was documented near Mount Rainier National Park. It is shaping up to be a remarkable success story!

Habitat and Needs

Fishers need forested habitats with a rich understory, snags and down logs to support the small mammal populations they prey upon. Fortunately, managed woodlands can provide all of these habitat features.

fisher habitat in western Washington
Excellent fisher habitat in western Washington.  Photo: John Jacobsen/Wash. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

It is hoped that successful reintroduction of the fisher to Washington state will result in sustainable populations across the landscape. Because managed forests are capable of providing suitable fisher habitat, small forest landowners on the west slopes of the Cascades have a direct interest in learning about the habitat needs of this amazing animal. To encourage landowners to take part in assisting the success of this species, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with WDFW, offers a program in which landowners agree to protect fishers on their lands. In return, the landowner receives protection from any future land use restrictions that could result from the presence of fishers. This arrangement, a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurance (CCAA), is straightforward and many landowners, large and small, have already signed on. Click here for more information on the CCAA program.

Fishers are no threat to normal workings of family forest lands (unless you happen to be a mouse, squirrel or chicken!) and they can provide a natural control over damaging rodents in tree farms. Returning this animal to our ecosystem will restore some of the remarkable richness of Washington’s forests.

For more information on the fisher and CCAAs, please visit the WDFW website, or contact Gary Bell at (360) 902-2412.

And as always, feel free to contact me with your questions, stories or photos of wildlife on your forested woodland.

by Ken Bevis, DNR Stewardship Wildlife Biologist, Ken.Bevis@dnr.wa.gov