Pacific fisher will not get federal Endangered Species Act protection after wildlife managers deemed threats to this rare backwoods weasel and its habitat won't lead to the animal's extinction.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today reversed course from its earlier stance of 18 months ago and declined threatened-species protection for fishers in part because of voluntary and proactive wildfire and conservation measures improving forest health and fisher habitat.
They include efforts such as the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project in the Ashland watershed, where biologists are studying, among many things, the impacts on wildfire thinning and selective logging on fishers and how they use those altered habitats.
In October 2014, the service proposed listing fishers up and down the West Coast as threatened based on threats to its habitat by wildfire, some logging practices and illegal use of pesticides to protect illegal marijuana plantations from rat infestations.
However, the service today believes that those threats still exist to these small predators, but they are not causing significant enough impacts over the fisher's entire range to require a listing, says Jody Caicco, the service's Oregon forest resources division manager based in Portland.
While rodenticide poisoning clearly affects individual fishers, it is not seen as a threat across their entire range. Populations of fishers exist in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Siskiyou Mountains and in Washington, Caicco says.
"Similarly, wildfire impacts don't have the effect of threatening the whole population," Caicco says.
While the AFR project was not specifically cited in today's decision, Caicco says it fits the bill for how changes in forest management can be more fisher-friendly than in the past.
"The Ashland resiliency project is a good one in addressing concerns about wildfire and how it plays into overall forest health that the fishers will benefit from," Caicco says.
The agency in 2004 deemed Pacific fishers warranted threatened species status but precluded listing for higher-priority species. A federal court case led to the service revisiting that status, which led to the October 2014 listing proposal and culminated in today's decision against listing.
"This is an about-face for them," says Joseph Vaile, executive director of KS Wild based in Ashland.
The Siskiyou and South Cascades are a stronghold for fishers but the various clusters are isolated and they don't seem to be expanding on their own, Vaile says.
"That's one of our biggest concerns," Vaile says. "Without the help of threatened (species) status, these populations will continue to be isolated."
Dave Clayton, a biologist with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest who studies Pacific fishers in the Ashland watershed and elsewhere, says today's listing was a determination that the Forest Service supports.
The Siskiyou Mountains population of Pacific fishers is native, while another in the South Cascades is from fishers introduced by private timber owners to prey on porcupines, who damage young trees. Fishers are the only animals known to prey regularly on porcupines.
Caicco says the service estimates anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 fishers in Southern Oregon and Northern California, including those in the South Cascades.
The southern Sierra Nevada population is about 300 animals, and more than 100 have been re-introduced in Washington, Caicco says.
About the size of large house cats, fishers belong to a family of mammals that includes weasels, mink, martens and otters. They live in low- to mid-elevation forests and require cavities in trees for rearing their young as well as canopies for resting and hiding from predators.
The fisher’s range was reduced dramatically in the 1800s and early 1900s through trapping, predator and pest control, and changes in forested habitats by logging, fire, urbanization and farming, according to today's declaration.