Fishers: With Help From Man, These Predators Repatriate Tennessee


Fisher: Size 30×12 in., tail 12-18 in. long, the largest of the martens; has a dark shaded deep underwool with fine, glossy, dark and strong top hair 2 in. or more long. . . . The tails are almost black and make up most handsomely into trimmings, muffs, etc. Tails worked separately in these forms are rich and fine and more durable than any other fur suitable for a like purpose. The fur of the skin itself is something like a dark silky raccoon, but is not as attractive as the tails.

“Fur: Names, Qualities and Uses of Pelts,” Encyclopedia Britannica,11th Edition

Chances are, you’ve never seen a fisher. The above excerpt from a 10-page article on “Fur” in the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica partly explains why.

Prior to European settlement of North America, fishers occupied northern forests in Canada and the United States and ranged as far south as the mountainous regions of North Carolina and Georgia. In 1846, John James Audubon and John Bachman reported seeing several skins procured in east Tennessee.

But overtrapping and logging of the heavily forested habitat they require led to their extirpation from all but the northernmost parts of their range within the United States before the end of the 19th century.

Fisher populations have been successfully restored in parts of Idaho, Michigan, Montana, Minnesota, Maine, Vermont, New York, and West Virginia. But until recently, fishers remained unknown in the southern Appalachians.

Enter Bob Long, a high school ecology teacher and founder of the Extirpated Species Foundation (ESF), an organization whose mission is to “repatriate locally extinct species of indigenous animals and plants for the enjoyment of future generations.” Thanks to a cooperative effort between ESF and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources
Agency, 20 fishers were reintroduced in Tennessee last October. Twenty more are scheduled to join them this fall.

Using a TWRA plane, Long and TWRA personnel Bruce Anderson, Billy Swofford, Rick Moats and pilot Barbara Richards traveled to the Chequamegon National Forest in northern Wisconsin. There they hired two expert Ojibway Indian trappers who in four days captured 30 fishers, including the 11 females and 9 males they selected for transport and release in the 80,000-acre Catoosa Wildlife Management Area near Crossville.

Five males and five females were outfitted with radio collars. Until late February, when the collar of one of the males was discovered, cut and discarded by the side of a road, all the collared animals had survived. (There was no trace of the animal itself. It is presumed dead — probably illegally shot, or hit by a car.)

“Since we assume that the survival rate is the same for the collared and uncollared animals, that gives us a survival rate of 90 percent for the first four months,” Long says.

Partnering with ESF and TWRA on the first phase of the project were the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Great Lakes Indian Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, Defenders of Wildlife and Duracell of Cleveland, TN.

Defenders of Wildlife got involved with the project because its aims dovetailed with Defenders’ Wild Rescue Program, says Caroline Kennedy, director of special projects for the conservation organization.

“We look for places where animals, primarily carnivores, have been extirpated, and try to bring them back,” she said. “The State of Tennessee is interested in restoring all the species that have been extirpated within its borders. [Long] brought the fisher project to our attention. We looked into it, saw he had a good plan, and decided to work with him.”

While Defenders has been involved with reintroduction of wolves, bison, swift foxes and other animals, this is its first fisher reintroduction project. Kennedy and other
Defenders staffers intended to participate in the trapping, but scotched those plans in the wake of Sept. 11.

Still, they were on hand in Catoosa, to help coax the fishers out of the wooden boxes they were transported in, and into the wild. “We like to be involved in on the
ground activities, not just with the funding,” Kennedy said.

Fisher reintroduction is part of a dream Long has entertained for more than a decade.

“I love going to the mountains, to places like Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” the McMinn County native says. “But I always felt as though was something missing.
I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have one place in the eastern US where people could come to see all the species that have been extirpated since the white settlers came?”

His first step involved elk reintroduction, a subject he chose as a thesis project in 1991, when he was getting his Master’s degree at the University of Tennessee.

“When I started, my professors laughed at me, but they aren’t laughing now [that elk have been reintroduced into the park],” Long said. He turned his attention to fishers in 1993. Now he’s making noises about reintroducing the snowshoe hare (a prime prey species for fishers) to Roan Mountain and other high elevation habitats.
His repatriation wish list also includes bison and wolves.

When he retires from teaching, he’d like to travel around the Southeast, viewing the wildlife he’s helped restore.

Long originally proposed the fisher reintroduction for the Smokies. But the plan was put on hold while biologists tried to gauge its impact on the park’s federally endangered northern flying squirrel population. Rather than wait, Long looked for an alternative site.

In 1998, he and Anderson, TWRA’s wildlife diversity coordinator, submitted a proposal for fisher reintroduction in Catoosa. The project got the go-ahead after Wisconsin DNR waived its usual $500/animal charge for animals transferred to other states, and Defenders of Wildlife and Duracell put up $7,500 each to cover trapping, transportation, telemetry equipment and other costs. Long will ask Duracell and Defenders for additional financial support for the second round of fisher reintroduction this fall.

Natural History

Fishers, also known as pekans, have been residents of the North American continent since the early Pleistocene; they probably arrived in the Western Hemisphere via the Bering Land Bridge. They likely descend from small, arboreal, forest-dwelling carnivores, though the fossil record is unclear.

Built like stocky weasels, fishers and their close relatives, American martens, are the only medium-sized predators who are agile in trees. With their long bodies and short legs, they’re also superbly adapted to search for prey in holes, hollow logs and brush piles.

“They’re incredibly quick,” Long says. “They look like great big weasels — they’re the size of a fox, with short legs, and with big bushy tails, almost as luxuriant as a fox’s. I’d never actually seen one alive, until we got to Wisconsin. I was amazed at how beautiful they are. Since we released them, several deer hunters, sitting on their stands, have caught sight of them, and were real excited about it. I think they’ll be a real addition to Tennessee’s wildlife.”

Fishers are aggressive hunters, whose major claim to fame is their ability to kill porcupines (they’re the only predators who are porcupine specialists). Though fishers are mainly nocturnal, they also may be active during the day. In addition to porcupines, they prey on rabbits, squirrels (like squirrels, fishers can run headfirst down the trunk of a tree), shrews, mice, skunks, possums, rats, snakes and birds. They also feed on carrion, and, when prey is scarce, eat insects, berries and nuts.

Sexually dimorphic, males are markedly larger than females. They’re solitary hunters; males and females associate only to breed. Females den high in hollow trees, and move the young from one den to another to protect them from male fishers and other predators. Mating takes place in April, but embryo implantation is delayed until the following February or March, followed by a 30-day gestation period.

Litters generally include two or three kits, which are born with eyes and ears closed, bodies covered with a sparse growth of fine hair. Eyes remain closed until the young are about 7 weeks old; they subsist entirely on their mother’s milk for a few weeks after that. Juvenile fishers stay with their mother until fall, and may remain within her home range through the winter, after which they establish their own home ranges.

Fishers prefer continuous or nearly continuous forests, and avoid clear-cut areas in the winter (though they use them in the summer months if cover supplied by ground vegetation and young trees is dense.

“The exact structure of forests that is important to fishers is just being learned,” writes NC State University professor Roger Powell, in his 1993 book on the fisher. “For fishers, the problem is not clear-cuts per se, because fishers evolved in forests that experienced wind throw and fire, but the extent of clear-cut forests. . . . Small clear-cuts interspersed with large, connected, uncut areas may not seriously affect fisher populations.

“Large clear-cuts, however, can seriously limit the available foraging area for a fisher population during the winter and thus limit the population size. . . Finally, if major changes occur in northern forests due to global warming, this human impact on fisher habitat will be more profound than the worst effects of logging.”

Tracking Fishers

Since the fishers were released last fall, Anderson and Tennessee Tech student Eric Copac have been tracking the collared animals “as often as possible,” Long said. “They’re going out on a weekly basis, locating as many of the animals on the ground as they can. They’ve flown the area a couple of times too. What we’re trying to learn is how the fishers have dispersed from the release point, the home range of each animal, and the prey they are consuming.”

So far, the telemetry studies have gone well. “People told us we wouldn’t be able to find scat samples, but we have, because we have been able to locate den trees and then search in the area around them,” Long said.

Analysis of the scat indicates the fishers are eating squirrels, possums, groundhogs, “and, we suspect, from the odor, skunk.” Because they have been able to locate den trees, Long and Anderson hope they will have the expertise to tell when the females have given birth. If they suspect a den contains young, they’ll scale the tree with ropes to bag and weigh the babies, then return them to the nest.

“We’d like to monitor natality (birth rate) and mortality,” Long says. “We won’t be collaring the young, and we may not collar any of the [adult] fishers we release next fall. I wish we could afford to collar them all, but it’s too expensive.”

To hunters who worry about the impact of the fishers on grouse, turkey and quail populations, Long points to studies that show that populations of ground-nesting birds have actually gone up after fishers were reintroduced. While fishers do occasionally take these birds, they more often feed on the birds’ predators, reducing populations of skunks, snakes, and other nest-raiding species.

Likewise, he suspects that squirrel hunters’ fears about the fishers’ effect on the squirrel population are also unfounded. Fishers are likely to move into areas overpopulated by squirrels, and will cull the least fit animals. “I think the fishers will have a positive effect on squirrel populations, not a negative one,” he said.

Next Stop, Smokies?

If the Catoosa project is successful, Long wants to reintroduce fishers elsewhere in the southern Appalachians, including Great Smoky Mountains NP.
“They’re finding more northern flying squirrels [in the Park] than they originally thought were living there,” he says. “My feeling is that fisher reintroduction would have a positive effect on flying squirrels because fishers will take out some of their predators. If you look at the historical range of the fisher and the [northern] flying squirrel, they’re almost the same. The two species evolved together. It’s part of nature’s plan [for them to coexist], and nature’s plan is hard to beat.”
The more funding he can procure,”the faster we can proceed with fisher reintroduction,” Long says. “I hope, within two or three years, to have them in the Cherokee National Forest and in the park. I’m interested in moving over into North Carolina too, into the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, and into Northern Georgia. We have to take it one step at a time, though, because of the money.”

Voice correspondent Elizabeth Hunter, who also writes a regular column for Blue Ridge Country magazine, will lead a traditional arts workshop on nature writing on April 20th at the Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, in Elizabethton, Tennessee from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The class has a limit of 15 participants, and there is a fee. You must pre-register at least one week prior to the workshop. For further information, contact the Carter Mansion at 423/543-6140 or the Sycamore Shoals Historic Area at 423/543-5808.


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