The reintroduction of fishers to Mount Rainier National Park represents the latest step to return the member of the weasel family to Washington.
MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK — In a blur, about 10 pounds of fur and flesh roared out of a plywood box, then bounded across an inch of snow before disappearing into old-growth forest.
“Whoa, look at her go,” said Jeff Lewis, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologist. “Like she was shot out of a cannon.”
The zooming furball, Betsy, was one of 10 fishers released Friday as part of an effort to reintroduce the species in the Cascade Mountains. The second-largest member of the weasel family, fishers were driven to extinction in Washington by the mid-1900s by trappers seeking their soft pelts.
That makes Betsy and her nine counterparts the first fishers in Mount Rainier National Park in decades. If all goes well, she will make a den, find a mate and get to work multiplying.
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But first, the fishers made a dazzling entrance.
Nisqually tribal members drummed softly as each fisher exited its plywood cage. Nine remote cameras and dozens of smartphones captured their every move as a crowd of 100 whooped at the animals’ release.
“It filled my heart with joy. They’re back,” said Jackie Wall, a Nisqually Tribe elder and one of the drummers.
The fishers were released on five acres of land designated for use by the Nisqually tribe within the park.
“It’s the only area in the park you can see the (Nisqually) river and the mountain,” Wall said. “It’s really bringing them home.”
It took a long journey to bring fishers to Mount Rainier. They were trapped on First Nations land near Williams Lake in British Columbia, about 500 miles from Mount Rainier.
For weeks, the fishers were held in captivity, then vaccinated and treated for health issues before being inspected on both sides of the border.
After the fishers arrived at Mount Rainier National Park, groups of tribal leaders, environmental advocates and officials carried a procession of caged fishers into the forest in plywood cages constructed by national park carpenters.
“This looks almost the opposite of a funeral; we’re carrying something to give it new life,” said Rick Gilbert, a 71-year-old tribal councilor representing the Williams Lake Band of Indians. Gilbert traveled 10 hours to come to the ceremony and celebrate the fishers’ release.
“It’s so good to see concern about the animals and nature and conservation in this world where so many species are going extinct,” Gilbert said.
For Lewis, the release was another special moment in the march to increase the fishers’ habitat in Washington state. Along with nonprofit Conservation Northwest and the National Park Service, Lewis and WDFW have been working for more than 15 years to return fishers to the state.
The process began with the release of fishers in Olympic National Park, where the animals have spread and are reproducing.
With success, the effort moved on to the Cascades. Last year, 23 fishers were released into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Biologists are able to track the animals with radio receivers that detect implanted transmitters. Flying over the south Cascades, biologists can hear a unique radio chirp for each individual fisher.
So far things have gone relatively well in the Cascades. Fourteen fishers survived the year. Four are missing. Five died.
Lewis expects some of the original Cascades fishers to begin to produce young. A year after the relocation, “we’re expecting really good things,” he said.
The 10 fishers released Friday are the first of 40 slated for reintroduction this winter.
Trapping fishers in British Columbia is easiest after snow falls because their tracks are easier to spot.
November and December become crunchtime for the effort because fishers give birth nearly a year after they mate. Some of the just-released fishers could soon be ready to reproduce.
“We don’t want the stress of the capture process … to coincide with a sensitive reproduction,” Lewis said.
Eventually, a total of 80 fishers will be released into the south Cascades. Then, the group will start relocations in the north Cascades.
With luck, pioneering fishers will expand their territory to cover the entire range.
That fishers would have a good chance to retake the mountain range would have been unlikely even 15 years ago, said Mitch Friedman, the executive director of Conservation Northwest.
“A lot of things have gotten better in the Cascades to allow for reintroduction,” he said, including improvements for wildlife along the Interstate 90 corridor and rehabilitated habitats.
Amid concerns about conservation and uncertain politics, Friedman said, the fishers represented progress.
“There’s less going wrong in the world,” he said. “We’re making nature better.”