USFWS considers protection for Rocky Mountain fisher

On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was considering the Northern Rocky Mountain fisher for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The announcement opens a 30-day public comment period.

A petition submitted by six environmental groups, including the Friends of the Bitterroot, the Friends of the Clearwater and the Friends of the Wild Swan, prompted the action. The petition says fishers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are threatened by loss or curtailment of habitat or range, disease and predation, overutilization via incidental and direct trapping, and various other factors.

“There are no existing regulatory mechanisms which are adequate to protect the fisher. For the Northern Rockies fisher to have the best chance at recovery, it should be promptly protected under the Act with designated critical habitat,” the petition stated.

In Montana, where the fisher is listed as a “species of concern,” it comes as no surprise that fishers aren’t doing well. Montana has only one native population in the Bitterroot Range and biologists don’t know if that is still viable. Biologists think most of the population survives on the Idaho side of the range where no fisher trapping is allowed.

Like many species, fishers were extinct in Montana by the 1930's because of over-exploitation, in this case, trapping for fur. Reintroduction efforts in 1959 and 1960 in Lincoln, Granite and Missoula counties resulted in a few resident populations. More recent reintroductions in the Cabinet Mountains between 1988 and 1991 haven’t been very successful.

In May, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commissioner Gary Wolfe proposed reducing Montana’s fisher trapping quota to zero until more could be learned about the species.

Since fishers are so elusive, FWP Big Game Chief John Vore said FWP relies on trapping results, but 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 northwestern Montana 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.

Keily Paul of the Defenders of Wildlife, one of the petitioning groups, asked FWP for a moratorium on trapping while the population is at risk and asked that the agency work with other agencies, including Idaho, to develop a comprehensive management plan.

But FWP refused to stop trapping, and in so doing, might have bolstered the petitioners’ argument for listing. Even knowing that fisher populations are low, FWP insisted that limited fisher trapping be allowed to continue.

“Why even have just a few to harvest?” Vore said in July. “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.”

On June 29, 2011, the USFWS determined that fisher in the Northern Rocky Mountains did not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act. The environmental groups came back two years later with a new petition that prompted this announcement.

This applies only to the distinct population segment in the Northern Rockies. The groups also petitioned to list the West Coast population segment but the USFWS decided against listing in April 2016.

Meanwhile, it appears fishers are making a rebound in the East, where a number of states have been reintroducing fisher. Pennsylvania biologists report that that between 2001 and 2008, the number of fishers trapped incidentally rose from one to 105. The number of incidentally trapped fishers has risen to more than 1,000 today. While that’s not too damaging to a healthy population, incidental take can wipe out a small one.

Those wanting to comment on listing the Northern Rocky Mountain population can do so here:

Federal eRulemaking Portal: In the Search box, enter FWS-R6-ES-2015-0104, which is the docket number for this action.  Then click on the Search button. You may enter a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”  Please ensure that you have found the correct document before submitting your comment.