Once locally extinct, fishers are bounding all over the Olympic Peninsula.
First released into Olympic National Park in 2008 in an effort to repopulate the native carnivore, they now range from Neah Bay to Ocean Shores, from Port Townsend to Olympia, preliminary data from remote cameras and hair snags confirm.
It’s a spectacular turnaround for an animal believed to be locally extinct for at least 80 years. Over-trapping of fishers for their luxuriant, lush brown coats and loss of the big, old-growth trees in which fishers like to lounge and den caused populations to plummet. The state closed the trapping season for fishers in the 1930s.
The National Park Service with other partners began a relocation effort in 2008, in an effort to bring the animals back. From 2008 to 2010, 90 fishers were moved from central British Columbia to the Sol Duc and Elwha Valleys.
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The population today isn’t known, and the question remains as to whether births are keeping pace with losses, building a population that is self-sustaining over the long term.
But the indications from a monitoring effort by federal, state and tribal biologists so far are promising. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Patti Happe, chief of the wildlife branch for Olympic National Park.
Tracking in such remote, wild country is tricky. The batteries in radio collars initially fitted to the animals are all dead by now, so biologists in 2013 began utilizing remote, motion-triggered cameras pointed at survey stations, including hair snags, baited with chicken drumsticks. The hair samples allow scientists to analyze fisher DNA to track the growing family tree of the initial, founder population.
Some of the new kits have ranged as far as 43 miles from their mothers’ home territory, and cameras have found fishers using habitat where the radio-collared animals were never tracked, documenting that the fishers continue to gain ground.
Sharp toothed and clawed, fishers are related to minks, polecats and martens. They hunt the small mammals that are abundant in the Olympics.
The cameras mounted to detect fishers also documented a menagerie of teeming wildlife in the Olympics: Some 43 species of animals in 2013 were captured on camera in more than 37,000 images, from spotted skunks to coyotes, cougars, bobcats, raccoons, black-tailed deer, elk, flying squirrels, mountain beavers, snowshoe hares, mice and wood rats. Black bear were the single most frequently spotted animal.
Fishers do face perils in their new home. Cougars, bobcats and coyotes take their toll. Several fishers were apparent road kill, including one carcass recovered along Highway 101 on the outskirts of Port Angeles.
Two fishers were released from live traps by a licensed trapper seeking bobcats.
But with an abundant source of food in the forests, fishers are expected to do well. Wolves are now the only mammal still missing from the original suite of life in the Olympics, after being shot and trapped to local extinction in the early 1900s. Wolves are slowly recolonizing Washington wild lands but are not yet known to have reached the Olympic Peninsula.
Fishers once occupied coniferous forests at low to middle elevations throughout much of the Western U.S. The goal of the relocation program is to restore fishers to the Olympic National Park within 10 years.
Radio-tracking initiated in the first phase of the project documented the fishers’ far-ranging travels, including one female released in the Elwha Valley at Altair campground in January 2008. She was the first animal set loose in a public event, where school children cheered as she sprang to freedom from her carrying box.
Biologists followed her “on the air” thanks to her radio collar for 2½ years, from the Elwha Valley to the northeastern portion of the Olympic Peninsula. She settled down in the upper Dosewallips in the summer of 2008, making it home until March 2009.
After a two-month walkabout in the southeastern Olympics, she cruised back down to the lower Elwha, back where she first sprang from her box. There she stayed through June 2010.
She went off the air in 2014, when the batteries on her collar died. But she is perhaps still out there, rewilding her bit of the Olympics.
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org