The story of the Pacific fisher (Martes pennanti), a small carnivorous mammal related to weasels, wolverines and otters, is a feel-good tale worthy of its own animated movie. The small mustelid was completely wiped out in Washington State in the mid-1900s, with the only surviving populations hiding out in southwest Oregon and northern California. But starting this December, fishers are one step closer to reclaiming their home range – thanks to a rewilding project run by Conservation Northwest and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

The first stage of the rewildling project began in 2007, when WDFW and partners released 90 fishers over two years into Olympic National Park. Now that the Olympia population is healthy and established, the project is moving forward, with the goal of releasing a further 80 fishers (including the seven released last month) into the southern region of the Cascades mountain range. If that reintroduction works, they will move on to the northern Cascades. 

But how does one go about reintroducing a species that's been locally extinct since the twentieth century? To start, WDFW partnered up with the British Columbia Ministry of Environment and the BC Trappers Association to capture live, healthy fishers in British Columbia, Canada. It makes financial sense for trappers, who are paid $600 for each live fisher they capture – far more than they’d earn for a pelt.

The fishers are then housed at an animal sanctuary and fed donated roadkill until they’re ready for transport to Washington. Once through border patrol, they’re checked for parasites and broken teeth, and implanted with tracking devices before being released into their new home.

Of course, there is some concern from Washington residents (particularly timber companies) about the effects of boosting wild fisher numbers. If the animals get listed under the Endangered Species Act, they’d be federally protected, which could lead to new regulations for private landowners that happen to have newly relocated fishers wandering onto their properties. The WDFW and US Fish and Wildlife are working on an agreement that will help iron out this potential conflict.

So what’s next? Conservationists hope that the success with the fisher may lead to the reintroduction of another important mammalian predator: the grizzly bear.


Top header image: Bethany Weeks/Flickr