Release in snowy forest returns fishers to Mount Rainier ecosystem

Fishers released to a snowy forest on Mount Rainier

Ten fishers, members of the weasel family, were released inside Mount Rainier National Park Dec. 2, 2016.
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Ten fishers, members of the weasel family, were released inside Mount Rainier National Park Dec. 2, 2016.

There are new tracks in the snow at Mount Rainier National Park, created by the 10 fishers released Friday near Longmire.

The release, the first inside the park, is part of multiagency, multinational effort to restore fishers — members of the weasel family, related to otters, badgers and wolverines — in Washington where they have not been seen in more than 50 years.

The four females and six males that scampered away through the trees were the first of 40 animals hoped to be released in the park this winter. The next release could happen as soon as next week.

Highly valued for their fur, fishers were trapped until they no longer existed in Washington by the 1940-50s. The state listed them as an endangered species in 1998. The reintroduction plan was finalized in 2006.

“It feels wonderful already,” Park Superintendent Randy King said after the last of the 10 animals bolted into the damp lowland forest. “Today is a special opportunity to put back a missing piece in Mount Rainier, back in the state of Washington.”

More than 100 people were on hand for the release, including members of area Indian tribes, Canadian First Nation bands and the various agencies and organizations involved in the reintroduction effort.

“We weren’t here first, the animals were here first,” said Hanford McCloud, a member of the Nisqually tribe. “It’s our job to take care of them. That’s what’s happening here today with the fishers.”

Rick Gilbert of the Northern Shuswap First Nation was one of many people who made the trip to the park from central British Columbia, where the animals were trapped.

“Bringing fishers here is a uniting force. They have been a part of our family, they are a part of your family now. I guess that makes us in-laws,” Gilbert quipped.

“I would like nothing more than, in two, three or five years, to hear that the fishers are thriving here.”

That is the goal of biologist Jeff Lewis of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. He has spent the past 15 years working on the reintroduction effort.

“This feels good, each one feels good,” Lewis said in between releases.

Lewis said efforts to track the fishers will begin as soon as the weather allows, looking up to the gray clouds hanging just above the ridges rising over the Nisqually River valley. Each animal has a shotgun-shell size transmitter near its stomach.

“As soon as we can fly we’ll be up there trying to see where they have gone.”

The first phase of the reintroduction took place from 2008-2010 with the release of 90 fishers in Olympic National Park. While there is no count of those animals, they have spread across the Olympic Peninsula and are reproducing.

The current $800,000 project calls for the release of 80 fishers in the south Cascades and Mount Rainier National Park. After that, another 80 animals will be released in the North Cascades.

From December 2015 through Feb. 6, the first round of the South Cascades-Mount Rainier releases, 23 fishers (11 females, 12 males) were let go in the Randle area of the Cascades.

In July, the team reported that five of the animals had died. Two of them died after apparently battling with larger animals, while the cause of death of the other three remains unknown.

Fourteen of the animals have been consistently tracked, from south of U.S. 12 between Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams.

The recovery effort is a prime example of what can be done when government agencies, conservation groups and Indian tribes work together, said Tara Chestnut, a wildlife ecologist at the park.

“When there is so much gloom and doom in the conservation world, this is a good story,” Chestnut said.

“This is such a brilliant conservation story. The habitat was here, the food was here. The only missing was the fisher.”

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640

Fisher facts

Appearance: Fisher are large, stocky and dark brown. They have a long bushy tail, short rounded ears, short legs and a low-to-the-ground appearance.

Family: Fishers are a member of the weasel family, and are related to the mink, otter and marten.

Size: Adult fishers weigh 8-12 pounds, with males weighing twice as much as females. Their long, slim bodies can reach 3 feet long.

Range: Larger populations are found in northern British Columbia and Alberta, northern Idaho, western Montana, southern Oregon and northern California.

Diet: They eat rodents, squirrels and chipmunks and are one of the species known to prey on porcupines.