ASHLAND — Dave Clayton straddles a live trap with a slim, medieval-like iron cage attached to the end, ready for the five minutes of chaos that both the wildlife biologist and his rare, wild and feisty quarry know all too well together.
Inside is F-03, a Pacific fisher whose unshakable taste for poultry has put her in Clayton's trap a dozen times since 2011. Clayton opens the wooden trap and taps on it to goose the animal into the iron cage, where assistant Devlin Madrone can use wooden dowels to hold it in place so Clayton can hit the animal with a sedative and get things rolling.
Despite Madrone's efforts, F-03 spins in the cage, and its face — like a mix of fox and bear — points right at Clayton.
"Hey, Cricket," Clayton says. "How's it going, kid? OK, kiddo, you know the drill."
When the drill concludes an hour later, Cricket again will be back working for the government full-time in the quest to determine whether sensitive animals such as fishers can coexist within a large and ongoing forest-thinning project to reduce wildfire danger on Forest Service land within the Ashland watershed.
A GPS collar fitted to the fisher's thin neck will allow Clayton to track her next three months of travels to nesting, feeding and resting areas in timber stands either logged or burned to reduce wildfire intensity, as well as adjacent untouched stands.
In doing so, Cricket and 33 other fishers sporting similar biological bling in this watershed since 2010 could even help determine how fisher habitat in Northern California and southwestern Oregon could be managed should Pacific fishers gain federal threatened-species status when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service releases its final listing decision this spring.
"Dave has collected a terrific data set that will help scientists determine what are the trade-offs for different treatments for fire," says Darren Borgias, The Nature Conservancy's Southwest Oregon program director and one of the partners in the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, of which the fisher study is a part.
Cricket is one of Clayton's go-to data collectors. The Forest Service biologist embedded an identification computer chip in her when he first captured her. She's now getting her sixth collar in the past five years, each time suckered into schlepping one by her own culinary weakness.
"She likes chicken," says Clayton, as he waits for Cricket's sedative to kick in.
After three minutes, Clayton pulls the slumbering Cricket out of the chamber and stretches her across a makeshift work bench on his government pickup's tailgate, revealing why fishers were trapped into near oblivion in the early 1900s.
Clayton strokes her soft, brown, velvety pelt, which was highly prized by the world's wealthy a century ago. Massive trapping efforts along with habitat loss and rodenticide poisoning have whittled Pacific fishers down to two distinct populations — one in California's Sierra Mountains and another in Northern California and southwestern Oregon, where Cricket and her brethren represent the extreme northeast end of their range.
"It's the American sable, highly prized as pelts," Clayton says. "Trappers would get $100 a pelt in the Depression."
The elegance associated with fisher fur around one's neck carries its own irony. In the woods, these animals are so strong and ill-tempered that they are the only animals known to prey on porcupines by flipping them and attacking their abdomens.
Had Cricket been awake, she could have filleted Clayton with her four sets of retractable claws.
"Take your worst enemy, chuck a fisher in his pickup cab, and he'll take care of him," Clayton says.
Clayton deems her pelt "prime," then starts clicking off a series of body measurements to keep tabs on Cricket's health, growth and reproductive success. Madrone dutifully logs all the measurements on a chart made for the study.
When Clayton discovers he's literally scared the crap out of Cricket, he takes that as well for DNA sampling that can tell scientists what she's been eating.
But that's all for some grad student to wade through later. Clayton's main job is to get Cricket back on the AFR involuntary work party.
Launched in 2009, the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project is a partnership involving the Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, the city of Ashland, and the nonprofit Lomakatsi Restoration Project to address wildfire fuel loads that have altered the watershed.
The project seeks to reduce potential wildfire intensity while protecting Ashland's drinking water, improve forest health and other goals, including protecting or enhancing habitat used by, among other animals, northern spotted owls and Pacific fishers.
The project area is on about 7,600 acres of Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest land targeted for forest thinning with a mix of noncommercial piling and burning, as well as two commercial helicopter logging operations — one in 2012-2013 and a second that began last month and likely will run into spring.
These are not your father's thinning projects. In part with fishers in mind, crews are leaving more hardwoods, which these cavity-nesters use. Workers even intentionally leave big mistletoe brooms, normally considered Douglas fir parasites but popular resting platforms for fishers and perches for spotted owls.
"In the past, no one cared about hardwoods or mistletoe," says Lyndia Hammer, Lomakatsi's restoration ecologist working on the project. "It was like they were the enemy. But they have these great wildlife benefits. We're definitely looking at things differently."
A helicopter hauling logs from a commercial AFR stand to a landing area buzzes nearby as Clayton screws on the tiny collar sporting both GPS and VHF transmitters on Cricket.
The GPS will log and store her position every 10 hours. The VHF will allow Clayton to track her in the woods to locate her nest, some of her favorite resting places and even download the GPS data wirelessly if he can get close enough to make a connection.
The waypoints will be plotted to see whether Cricket and other collared fishers use the various treated stands. So far, an interim monitoring report for this project published Monday says sometimes, and Cricket is one of the report's data stars.
The report states that Cricket, known in the document by her more formal F-03 moniker, and other fishers in the study appear "somewhat tolerant" of the stands cleared by hand and burned. The report points specifically to Cricket's whereabouts within ground-cleared and logged treatment areas within her home range.
She avoided the area during logging and helicopter operations, and when the work was done she spent about two-thirds of her time in non-treated areas and 37 percent of her time in stands cleared and burned but not logged, the report states.
The jury is still out on use of commercially logged stands, and the report warns that continued treatment potentially could lead to a "breaking point" where fishers pack their bags and leave.
"We're starting to analyze the data," Clayton says. "In a couple years, we may be able to say something about it."
That's why Cricket is getting another tour of data-collecting duty. Already awake but groggy, she is placed back in the trap to shake off the hangover.
Clayton administers his "tip test," a field-sobriety test for drugged critters. He tips the cage to see whether Cricket remains upright, but she's still a tad buzzed. "We'll give her another 10 minutes," he says. "I don't want her going out there drunk."
That final wait sobers her up. Then Clayton straddles the cage one more time and releases the trap door.
Cricket clocks in as F-03 once again and bounds down the hillside.
"Yep, she's good," Clayton says. "I love working with her."