Small Population of Pacific Fishers Win Federal Protection

Conservationists say it’s not nearly enough.

The Pacific fisher is a forest-dwelling mammal related to weasels, minks and martens. (Bethany Weeks/Flckr)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — After a decades-long legal battle, the federal government on Thursday gave a small group of Pacific fishers endangered species status, but conservationists say the government “ignored key science” in denying protections for most of the animal’s West Coast population.

“We’re glad fishers have finally been protected in the southern Sierra,” said Sue Britting, executive director at Sierra Forest Legacy, in a statement Thursday. “But they face threats throughout their range and need and deserve broader recovery.”

Pacific fishers are fierce members of the weasel family with thick, dark coats and long, bushy tails. Their name is somewhat of a misnomer, as they do not eat fish. They feed on berries, nuts, insects, small birds, and mammals — including porcupines.

Once found in the mixed conifer forests along the West Coast and the Cascade Range of Canada, the Pacific fisher’s numbers have sharply declined due to deforestation, logging, poisoning and fur trapping.

Only a few isolated populations remain: one in the southern Sierra Nevada and another in the Klamath-Siskiyou region of Northern California and Southern Oregon. According to Fish and Wildlife estimates, the California/Oregon population ranges in size from 258 to 4,018, and the Sierra Nevada population is 100 to 500 animals. The fisher has also been reintroduced in parts of Washington state.

In a 212-page decision Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the Pacific fishers’ southern Sierra Nevada population deserves protected status under the Endangered Species Act. The service determined Pacific fishers in that region face multiple threats, including rising temperatures from climate change, wildfires, droughts, tree-killing insect infestations, deadly rodenticides from illegal marijuana grows, and vehicle collisions. 

While fishers in Northern California and Southern Oregon face many of the same threats, the service found those threats were mitigated by fuel reduction projects aimed at reducing wildfire severity and partnerships with timber companies to limit logging in Oregon.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a phone interview Thursday that those mitigation measures are woefully inadequate.

Government partnerships with timber companies ostensibly cover 2 million acres of forest in Oregon, but the agreements only require a quarter-acre buffer around known Pacific Fisher den and rest sites. That means only a few hundred acres of habitat are protected, Greenwald explained.

“It’s an infinitesimal amount of land they’ve agreed to protect,” he said.

The service concluded the Northern California and Southern Oregon population is stable, but Greenwald said that determination ignores scientific findings, including studies that found the geographic area where fishers are found is shrinking.

“The best available information shows them declining,” Greenwald said. “Fish and Wildlife is grasping at straws to say they are stable.”

The Center for Biological Diversity and other groups first petitioned for endangered species protections for fishers in 2000. The service found they warranted protection in 2004, but that such protection was precluded by listing of other species. Following further litigation, the agency proposed protection for the fisher in 2014, but reversed course in a 2016 decision denying protected status.

In 2016, the center and other groups filed a federal lawsuit, arguing the service abruptly changed its mind about protecting the animal after it received “new information” from forest industry groups.

In September 2018, U.S. District Judge William Alsup ordered the agency to reevaluate its decision, finding it failed to explain why its “uncertainty” about survival threats justified denying protected status for fisher.

The Environmental Protection Information Center, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Sierra Forest Legacy joined the center as plaintiffs in that lawsuit.

Greenwald said the center is reviewing the service’s decision and considering its legal options.

In an email, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesperson said, “As required by the Endangered Species Act, the service has used the best available science in making this decision.”

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