RANDALL, Wash. (CN) - A furry mammal the size of a large house cat darted across a creek deep in the mountains of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The fisher was once again free in its historical habitat, 70 years after incessant trapping for its warm pelts caused it to vanish completely from Washington state.
Closely related to the wolverine and with a feisty personality to match, fishers were prized for their soft, exceptionally warm fur.
Trappers collected them with a vengeance from the 1880s through the early 1930s. During that time, fisher furs were one of the most valuable types of fur in North America, according to Jason Ransom, wildlife biologist with the National Park Service.
"Fisher fur was so highly prized, it was second only to seals," Ransom said.
Trapping them was outlawed in 1934, but their numbers never recovered in Washington state.
In 1997, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted a status review and found that the animals had ceased to exist within the state.
Conservation biologist Jeff Lewis headed up the review. He said the answer to the problem was obvious.
"We knew we had plenty of good fisher habitat," Lewis said. "All that was missing was the fishers."
So the department launched a multi-agency effort to bring dozens from Vancouver, British Columbia, where the fisher population is robust, down to the rainforests of Washington state.
On Wednesday, the department released five fishers: 3 females and two males. (Click here or the image on the left for video.) This was the first release of many planned for the winter. The department hopes to release 40 animals in the Gifford Pinchot and around Mt. Rainier by February.
In 2011, the department released 90 fishers on the Olympic Peninsula. Those animals flourished, expanding their range and steadily reproducing.
Lewis said the same scenario was likely here.
"We think they'll do very well," Lewis said.
To find good candidates for the program, scientists analyzed genes from pelts in Washington's museums and compared them with living fishers. The population in Vancouver was determined to be the most genetically similar to Washington's historical population. And their habitat is largely the same.
In Canada, trapping fishers for their pelts is still legal, and the government establishes an annual quota of fishers that can be legally trapped. Lewis said the animals that will repopulate Washington would otherwise be killed for their pelts. But the new program gives trappers a good reason to keep the animals alive and healthy instead.
The department pays $500 - $600 per live animal. A single fisher pelt fetches $70.
"So there's a lot of incentive for them to play nice," Lewis said.
Once they're trapped, the animals go to the veterinarian and a radio transmitter about the size of a shotgun shell is surgically implanted.
Lewis said that approach was better for the animals than a radio collar, which can fall off or snag animals on tree limbs.
Once the Canadian trappers have gathered five animals, they are transported south.
Tara Chestnut, ecologist with Mt. Rainier National Park, said that can happen at any time.
"We're pretty much on call for the rest of the trapping season," Chestnut said.
On average, each fisher will be in captivity for about two weeks before being released in a Washington forest.
Ransom said the choice to repopulate the state with fishers was a strategic one.
"There are only a couple of animals that disappeared from Washington recently, like in the last century," Ransom said. "Grizzlies, the red fox and the fisher."
Fishers are carnivores, feeding on squirrels, snowshoe hares and even porcupines. But they're also prey, a food source for cougars and bobcats.
Ransom said adding fishers back into the mix will be good for the entire ecosystem, especially with the uncertainty of a changing climate.
"It's hard to say exactly what the fishers' niche is," Ransom said. "We just don't know. But we know that when you have the full complement of creatures, the whole ecosystem is more resilient. And so, we don't know what's going to happen with climate change, but we know that having the full complement of creatures will help."
Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, said the program offered hope for the future.
Conservation Northwest donated the money to fund a study conducted by Lewis in 2001 to evaluate the feasibility of reintroducing fishers into Washington.
"In a world where not everything is going well, there can also be good news," Friedman said. "And we can play a role in healing nature."
About 60 scientists, journalists and families with small children had gathered Wednesday to watch the animals be released one by one into the forest.
Each one streaked out of its wooden box in a different direction, eliciting quiet cheers from the crowd, which was subdued by instructions not to spook the already frightened animals.
A raven winged through the trees, peppering the morning with throaty comments.
After the release of the final fisher, the three principal scientists in the project exchanged hugs, then high fives.
"Well done," Lewis said to Ransom and Chestnut.
The crowd mingled and began to dwindle. Some people chatted, looking elated.
"Grizzlies are next!" someone yelled. A cheer erupted.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.