OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — Sixteen fishers sprinted from their cages into the wilderness Thursday to be fruitful and multiply in their new home.
The fishers, which are members of the weasel family, were captured in British Columbia and released into three areas of Olympic National Park in a federal effort to reintroduce the species to Washington state.
This is the third and last year that fishers will be released into the park.
Forty-nine fishers were releasedduring the first two years of the program, the first having been released in December 2007.
The 16 released this week bring the number to 65, and about 24 to 30 more are planned for release later this winter, said park biologist Patti Happe.
On Thursday, seven fishers were released at the Whiskey Bend trailhead in the Elwha River Valley, two at Deer Park and seven in the Sol Duc Valley.
Some shy, all fast
In the Elwha Valley, some of the recent arrivals from Canada were shy, poking out their heads out of the cages to take stock before fleeing.
Others were bolder, darting out as soon as the door was flung open.
One juvenile male peeked out, spotted some people and took off in the other direction, only to step on an observer’s toes.
Jeff Clark, who was filming the Whiskey Bend release, jumped back and laughed as the animal jolted by him.
After leaving the cages, most of the animals were just streaks as they hurried to find dens in hollow trees and logs.
“They are very, very fast,” Happe said.
“Sometimes it is better to just watch them rather than take pictures, because they’ll just be a blur a lot of the time.”
Fishers weigh between 4 ½ pounds and 12 pounds and are between 2 ½ feet and 3 ½ feet long, about a third of the length being the animals’ long, bushy tails.
The largest of the animals released on Thursday was about 12.6 pounds, Happe said.
“He’s a bruiser,” she said.
Biologists monitor animals
Radio collars on the fishers allow biologists to monitor them.
Of the 49 released the last two winters, 22 are still being monitored by radio.
Fifteen animals are known to have died, while four more are presumed dead. Two animals’ radio signals have failed, and, despite extensive searching, the whereabouts of six fishers are unknown.
At least three fishers have given birth to kits, Happe said.
“We think that four more have, as well, but we can’t be sure because their dens are very hard to find,” she said.
Fishers have an 11-month gestation period. For about nine months, it is a “dormant pregnancy,” with the kits developing in the last two months.
Fishers are related to minks, otters and martens. Native to the forests of Washington state, including the North Olympic Peninsula, over-trapping and habitat loss in the late 1800s and early 1900s led to their extinction in the state.
Known in British Columbia for attacks on porcupines, fishers have to make do with other prey in the Olympics, which lack porcupines. Instead, they eat snowshoe hares, deer mice, rats and mice, squirrels, shrew, deer and elk carrion and birds.
Fisher reintroduction to the park was done through a partnership of agencies and organizations.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Olympic National Park are joint project managers and, along with the U.S. Geological Survey, are leading a research and monitoring program to evaluate the success of the reintroduction.
The British Columbia Ministry of Environment has supported the capturing and importing of fishers to Washington state.
Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit, provides financial and administrative support for the project’s operations in British Columbia and coordinates volunteers who track fisher activity through remote camera stations.
Washington’s National Park Fund provides financial support for monitoring the reintroduced fisher population.
Other partners and organizations are providing financial or logistical support for management and research tasks.
The cost of obtaining, transporting, releasing, and monitoring fishers over three years was estimated at about $200,000 a year.
As the fisher population grows, biologists hope to fill in gaps in other areas of the state.
Fishers were listed as a state-endangered species in 1998 by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission and were designated as a candidate for federal listing in 2004 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act.
Source for Cascades
“We hope that eventually we can be the source of new fishers to relocate to the Cascades once the population here is established,” Happe said.
The fishers are reintroduced in the middle of winter because fishers are most easily trapped during that time period, Happe said.
“It really is amazing the connection we have with those in BC who do the trapping for us,” she said.
“I went and saw one of the trappers, and his kids were so excited to hear about what happened to the animals once they are here and where exactly they are living.”
Reporter Paige Dickerson can be reached at 360-417-3535 or at [email protected]