Biologists don’t know how many fishers exist, but Fish, Wildlife & Parks refused to freeze the trapping of the elusive animal.
After considering reducing the fisher quota to zero in May, the FWP commission accepted a modified proposal that would create four management units for fishers and allow trapping mainly in the Bitterroot unit.
Big Game Chief John Vore presented the history of the cat-sized species in Montana, which wasn’t all that glowing. FWP has tried to transplant individuals into three of the four proposed management units: the Bob Marshall, the Yaak and the Cabinet Mountains. Only the Cabinet Mountain population, transplanted in 1990, really took and no one knows if any remain in the Continental Divide region, Vore said.
Only the Bitterroot contains a native population, most of which is in Idaho.
The new quotas would allow the trapping of five fishers in the Bitteroot but only one could be a female. FWP would also allow the trapping of one fisher in the Cabinet Mountains. No fisher trapping would be allowed in the other two areas.
“Why even have just a few to harvest?” Vore said. “We have a tradition of trapping in Montana and it’s an important part of our management program, not only for the recreation that it provides but also the information that we get from harvested animals.”
Back in May, FWP proposed a quota of two in Region 1 and five in Region 2. Commissioner Gary Wolfe questioned why Montana had a season at all when Idaho has no fisher season. He proposed dropping both quotas to zero.
On Wednesday, Vore said FWP received 135 comments that were evenly split between supporting a quota of zero and advocating for more trapping.
One problem is FWP does not know the size of the Montana population. Many fisher reports have turned out to be marten, Vore said.
So FWP has to use a few metrics to try to estimate the populations in the four areas. Vore said biologists look at the number of females per male and the number of juveniles per adult female to judge whether the population is increasing or decreasing.
The problem is the only animals FWP can count are the ones trappers turn in. And if trappers catch only a handful of animals, such as in recent years, that’s not enough to get good information.
Vore said trappers haven’t caught many animals in the Bitterroot since the 1980s. Last year, only three fishers were trapped in the Bitterroot and only nine fishers were trapped in Region 1 between 2010 and 2014. Region 1 Wildlife Manager Neil Anderson said in May that Region 1 probably doesn’t have good fisher habitat. There is no population estimate for the Cabinet Mountains and Vore said he would need a lot more money to produce one.
Kylie Paul of Defenders of Wildlife pointed out that at least 100 animals are needed for count information to be statistically valid.
“We can’t estimate the population trend from these small amounts of records. So the agency doesn’t have the science to justify a fisher quota,” Paul said. “Recent extensive studies to find fishers have not been able to find them where they should occur. And if the habitat is indeed limited in Montana, why are we trapping them?”
Another problem is that fishers have been unintentionally caught in traps set for other animals, which further diminishes what little population exists. Vore said the new trapping regulations would include instructions for avoiding accidental fisher catch.
Wolfe indicated that he would probably still rather zero out the fisher quota but commended FWP biologists on the work they did coming up with a new plan.
“This is the real advantage of dealing with quotas on an annual basis,” Wolfe said. “Two or three years from now, we should know more about fisher populations than we do now. And those quotas will be addressed every year. They may go up, they may go down. But that’s the advantage of looking at this every year.”