by Charly Kearns | December 2016
Last week I was fortunate to witness an inspiring event, the release of 10 healthy fishers at Mount Rainier National Park.
Fishers are a large member of the weasel family, a bit bigger than a housecat. Because of their valuable pelts, fishers were hunted to extinction throughout much of their western range during the Great Depression. Populations have persisted in California, Southern Oregon, and British Columbia, but fishers were extirpated from Washington State. After more than 15 years of work by dedicated individuals, the fisher has returned to our state and the Nisqually Watershed for the first time in nearly 75 years.
Endangered species recovery often feels overwhelming, if not impossible. The list of major challenges includes habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, economic forces, and lack of scientific understanding. The case of the fisher is unique, in that there is actually quite a vast expanse of suitable habitat available for occupation in Washington, and the level of protection of these areas is greater today than ever before. The fisher faces competition from other species, but is a generalist, eating a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and even plants. These factors should be a key factor in the success of the reintroduction.
This year’s release is one stage of a multiyear reintroduction program, which started in Olympic National Park. The plan includes releasing 80 individuals into the southern Cascades and Mount Rainier, before moving to the North Cascades for further releases. The fishers were captured from First Nations Lands in British Columbia, where there is still a healthy population. Several elders and First Nations members attended the release, and members of the Nisqually and Cowlitz Tribes were present to welcome the fishers home.
Four female and six male fishers were released from their crates by children, something that has become a tradition during the course of this project. As these young people opened each box, a dark furry torpedo erupted and quickly disappeared into the dense forest. They were definitely not posing for photos. All the while, Tribal members welcomed the animals home with drumming and singing.
While I am sure the event was stressful for the animals, it was an opportunity for the public, and especially children, to become engaged with wildness. I am positive that this lesson will remain with those youngsters throughout their lives. I will certainly remember it. The value of an individual species is impossible to quantify, but we are poorer for every one that slips away. It is so heartening to see people work together to make things better. Wolves are returning to the southern Cascades, and who knows, maybe grizzly bears and wolverines will follow. The return of fishers is a great place to start. I hope that we’ll start seeing signs of these creatures throughout the region, maybe even on nearby Land Trust property in the future.