Quest for a Forest Phantom

The truth about the little-known fisher is out there, somewhere

Ray Vinkey steps out of his pickup truck into low, cloudy light that makes the March landscape look sculpted in silver rather than snow. He points a hand-held antenna at the surrounding hills. Vinkey is a biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and his job calls for keeping an eye on everything from grouse to goats across nearly 2 million acres in the west-central part of the state. Today he is radio-tracking wolves.

“The Sapphire Pack,” he tells me. “It has 14 members. They’ve been behaving themselves.” Ranchers have been a little edgy nonetheless, given the numbers of cattle that graze this countryside around the town of Phillipsburg. Deer and moose share the brushy bottomlands, though, and we can see elk roaming the slopes above-plenty of wild quarry to hold a wolf’s attention.

I’m interested in a smaller, more solitary predator that has become harder to find than wolves in many parts of the West these days. It is Martes pennanti, the fisher. Montana and Idaho may hold several hundred in scattered mountain settings. Then again, they may not. As part of his graduate studies, Vinkey collected records from Montana sites where fishers were reported and was unable to find evidence of a major population stronghold. Only a single enclave-in the northern end of the Bitterroot Range, whose crest defines the Idaho/Montana border-seemed to harbor enough individuals to have a good chance of sustaining itself over time.

Elsewhere in the region, Oregon has an estimated 100 fishers and California has fewer than 500. That’s about it, making the fisher not only perhaps the rarest forest carnivore in the Rockies south of Canada but also one of the rarest and most vulnerable creatures in the entire western half of the nation. More information about the species and its habitat is sorely needed. But fishers don’t rank very high on the priority lists of either western wildlife managers or the public. These lithe animals lack the star billing given wolves, big cats and bears roaming the same wildlands. It isn’t because fishers aren’t spectacular in their own right. It just means that it’s time to take a closer look at their lives.

The fisher is found only in North America, where its nearest relative is the smaller, lighter-colored American marten, another deep-forest denizen. Both belong to the mustelidae, or weasel family, the diverse group that also includes badgers, ferrets, minks, wolverines, river otters and sea otters.

Female fishers weigh 5 to 8 pounds and males at least twice as much. Some approach 20 pounds and stretch more than three feet from their nose to the tip of their bushy tail. More active at night than during the day, they hunt among the tangles and crannies on the forest floor and up among the branches. As Vinkey puts it, “This is an animal that makes its living poking its nose in holes.” For her den, a female will generally choose a cavity fairly high in a tree. There, she will give birth to between one and four kits and nurse them for about three months while their soft, gray fur changes to the rich, dark-chocolate coat worn by their parents. As the young begin exploring, they take full advantage of the species’ special ability to swivel its hind feet 180 degrees and descend tree trunks head-first, anchored by their backward-pointing claws.

The food fishers discover in their prowlings is a smorgasbord of eggs, nestlings and the occasional adult bird; mice, voles and shrews; rabbits and snowshoe hares; squirrels; salamanders and frogs; and berries in season. They are also famed for their ability to take on porcupines. But fishers don’t flip their quilled prey over, as lore has it-they attack the unarmored face in lightning strikes. These animals are also carrion-eaters, dining on carcasses large and small. One item conspicuously absent from the fisher’s diet is fish. Their name seems to be a twist on fichet, the French word for polecat or ferret.

Fast, fierce, flexible and superbly adapted to existence in dense forests, fishers originally flourished from the Appalachians to the Great Lakes, across the boreal woodlands of Canada, and down both the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast ranges. Then they all but disappeared during the early 20th century. Why?

Fishers were often described as the American sable, a creature whose name became synonymous with luxuriant fur. By the 1920s, a fisher pelt was selling for $120, the equivalent of nearly $2,000 in today’s currency. Drought, wildfires and logging did reduce forest habitats. Widespread predator poisoning campaigns doubtless claimed many a fisher. But it was chiefly unrestricted commercial trapping that brought this carnivore low. By 1930, Montana declared the species gone (though scientists recently discovered through DNA testing that a small population remained in the Bitterroot Mountains), and the situation was nearly as grim nationwide.

Defending Forest Habitat

Logging of old-growth forests in the West has significantly degraded and fragmented the places that fishers call home. Recently, Defenders of Wildlife had a major legal victory that should help us conserve habitat for fisher and other forest denizens like lynx and wolverine. The Bush administration had completely changed the way national forest management plans are updated, paving the way for large-scale habitat destruction. Previously these plans-updated every 10 years-included specific standards for protecting wildlife populations and habitat. The administration’s new regulations watered the plans down, replacing legally defensible standards with vague “aspirations.” Recognizing the disastrous effect this could have on wild animals that live in our national forests, Defenders took legal action. In March, a federal judge ruled in our favor, stating that the Bush approach may have negative impacts on wildlife and the environment and was therefore illegal. As the years passed, trappers began to call for the return of this valuable furbearer. Timber companies wanted fishers back as well because their absence appeared linked to an upsurge in porcupines, which in turn girdled and killed young trees. Game departments began trying to restock empty ranges with fishers from Canada and the Great Lakes region until Martes pennanti became one of the most widely-and haphazardly-transplanted carnivores in the lower 48 states. For example, between 1959 and 1963, British Columbia fishers were introduced to a half-dozen sites in Idaho and Montana. They belonged to the subspecies columbiana. Yet batches later released into the Cabinet Mountains of northwest Montana, practically next door to British Columbia, were drawn from a different, bigger subspecies-pennanti-native to Minnesota and Wisconsin.

After filling me in on the fisher’s history, Ray Vinkey stops at the willowy shore of Moose Lake, where 12 fishers were introduced in 1960. Three miles farther on, he shows me one of the places where a colleague, Mike Schwartz of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, put out a trap and scent lure in 2006. The device was designed not for catching a creature but merely for snagging a tuft of its hair to obtain DNA. It had done just that-and yielded fisher fur. The animal was almost surely a descendant of those transplanted four decades earlier, which was encouraging news of survival.

From the hair-trap site, we follow logging roads steadily upslope on snowmobiles. By afternoon, we’re where the Pintler Mountains intersect the Sapphire Range in a series of high meadows asleep beneath a soft, white quilt of snow. We’ve seen the footprints of moose, elk, deer, snowshoe hares, squirrels and coyotes en route-winter track surveys are among the ways Vinkey monitors wildlife populations-but no signs of fishers. He rarely does find such evidence, and a large marten track can’t safely be told apart from that of a small fisher in snow anyway. That single hair-trap sample was the only proof of a fisher within the vast territory he covers.

During his graduate-school study of fishers in the Cabinet Mountains of northwest Montana, Vinkey laid scores of carbon-coated plates on the ground night after night in the hope of recording detailed paw prints. That was in addition to regularly searching for sign along a survey route of more than 400 miles. He also devoted thousands of hours to operating noninjurious traps. In three years, he captured only four fishers as the legacy of the 110 animals transplanted into the area from 1989 to 1993. “It was sort of like looking for sasquatch,” he recalls.

The Cabinets are too far north to see from atop the Sapphire Range, but we can make out the Bitterroot Mountains shining to the west. A day later, I’m driving over the Bitterroots into the Idaho headwaters of the Lochsa River with the Forest Service’s Mike Schwartz. The hair-catching traps he set out in Vinkey’s area were part of an effort to get a more detailed picture of fisher populations across Idaho and Montana.

A ways down the Lochsa River, Schwartz and I put on cross-country skis and glide our way to a grove of towering western hemlocks and western redcedars. One of his team’s log box traps waits in the giants’ green, lichen-draped shade. “We call this the Cathedral Trap,” Schwartz says. “We’ve caught more fishers here and at a similar site than anywhere else.”

The fisher hotspots we move on to explore prove to be more stands of big, old conifers. Yet it isn’t strictly the size or age of the trees that counts so much as it is the structure of mature forests: fallen trunks, broken stumps and accumulations of branches and other woody litter on the ground, together with plenty of interlacing branches and hollow snags overhead. They all add up to more holes for fishers to search for food in or to hide from predators, including hawks and owls.

Eastern woodlands seem to offer enough physical complexity and prey variety to suit fishers. This may explain why the species has recovered well in some eastern states. But in the western half of the nation, where forests are generally drier and hardwoods are scarce, most of the fisher populations that persist are limited to the coastal ranges and the cloud-catching western slopes of the Rockies, where moist, shady stands of old-growth conifers offer the habitat fishers appear to need.

Weasels and martens are light enough to move readily over deep snows. Though wolverines weigh much more, they have broad paws to help keep them from sinking. Fishers are in between-heavier than martens but with only slightly bigger feet. They do better in habitats where thick snow doesn’t accumulate. Unfortunately, most of the primary forests on the lower slopes of western mountains have been cut down. The old-growth conifer forests remaining out West tend to be high, isolated and shrinking all the time as timber cuts reach farther into the backcountry. It’s a classic case of habitat fragmentation, and it is leaving fisher populations ever farther apart from one another. Given the animals’ strong avoidance of open country, there’s little chance they will recolonize places where fishers have vanished. On top of that, they are still subject to some recreational and commercial trapping.

Idaho has declared the species imperiled, but neighboring Montana still lists the fisher as a furbearer. The quota allowed trappers has been steadily reduced over the years, but the state maintains a token “harvest”-primarily for political and cultural reasons, since there is no scientific or economic justification for continuing. It may not matter a great deal what the actual quota is, or even whether fisher trapping is permitted or not. As long as people can legally set traps for wolverines, martens, coyotes, bobcats, minks, otters and other small- to mid-size carnivores, they are going to get fishers, too.

Eastern fisher populations are able to withstand trapping losses, and some populations show signs of expanding. But in the West, with its isolated enclaves, patchy habitat, ongoing removal of old-growth timber, and pressure from legal and accidental trapping, you have a recipe for keeping the species on the margins of existence.

List Fishers As Threatened Or Endangered

Conservation groups-including Defenders of Wildlife – have asked the federal government to list fishers as threatened or endangered in the Pacific states (home to the native subspecies pacifica as well as to others that were introduced) and also to list them in the West as a whole. But so far, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has denied those requests, citing insufficient money and manpower to take on the job of restoring the animals, along with a lack of information.

No one denies that hard facts about western fishers are scarce-but so are the animals themselves. The situation doesn’t look likely to change without help. That calls for a plan to get more of these solitary carnivores poking their noses back into the forest communities we all share.

Chad Huskins
Chad Huskins is an Evvy Award-winning writer. His debut novel Khan in Rasputin's Shadow won the 2009 Evvy for fiction. His horror series, beginning with Psycho Save Us, is #1 on Goodreads' list of Best Indie Horror.