Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The fisher is one of the few predators able to prey on porcupines successfully, and has been reintroduced in some areas to restore porcupine populations to normal levels.

For the Pacific Fisher, aka Sxwemechen: Positive Signs, but no Endangered-Species Listing

Richard Walker

It was hunted, trapped and farmed for its pelt for more than two centuries. Its population further declined as its forest habitat was lost to logging.

It has been poisoned by marijuana growers in Northern California. It was considered extirpated, or locally extinct, in Washington State until reintroduced in the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges over the past decade.

The figures, second from top on the house post at left, are fishers, also known as sxwemechen. (Photo: Courtesy of Tracy Powell)

It’s also the namesake of several Native American clans. In the Coast Salish Northwest, it was known as sxwemechen, associated with certain powers and depicted on house posts and other important cultural objects.

But despite its importance culturally and in the circle of life, the Pacific fisher will not receive federal protection as an endangered species—although it remains listed as threatened or endangered by the states of California and Washington.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on April 14 that “potential threats to its habitat from wildfire, some timber harvest practices, and indiscriminate and illegal use of pesticides to protect illicit marijuana plantations from rat infestations” were subsequently found to be “not as significant as previously thought” and are “not causing significant impacts or declines to the population.”

"There has been a substantial increase in support and interest by federal, state, tribal, and private stakeholders in implementing voluntary and proactive fisher conservation measures," USFWS Pacific region director Robyn Thorson said in an announcement of the results of her department’s study. "It is clearly resulting in a much improved long-term conservation outlook for [the] fisher."

Ren Lohoefener, director of USFWS’ Pacific Southwest region, added, “We arrived at our decision following a comprehensive evaluation of the science and after a thorough review of public input. The best available science shows current threats are not causing significant declines to the West Coast populations of fisher and that listing is not necessary at this time to guarantee survival.”

The fisher plays an important role in maintaining an ecological balance.

“Fishers are forest-dwelling mammals in a family that includes weasels, mink, martens, and otters,” the USFWS reports. “They are about the size of a large housecat and are light brown to dark blackish-brown. The fisher has a long body with short legs and a long bushy tail.”

Fishers generally eat birds, carrion, insects, small mammals (mountain beavers, mice, shrews, squirrels and voles) and snowshoe hares. They also occasionally prey on beavers and muskrat. The fisher is one of the few predators able to prey on porcupines successfully, and has been reintroduced in some areas to restore porcupine populations to normal levels.

A fisher climbing a tree resembles a fisher depicted on Coast Salish house posts, like these in front of the Samish Nation administration offices in Anacortes, Washington. (Photo: Public domain)

Fishers live in low- to mid-elevation forests and require cavities in trees for rearing their young, as well as for resting and hiding from predators.

“The fisher’s range was reduced dramatically in the 1800s and early 1900s through trapping, predator and pest control, and changes in forested habitats by logging, fire, urbanization and farming,” the USFWS said. “The species is now found in the northern forests of the United States and Canada as well as … the Pacific Coast mountains of California, Oregon and Washington.”

Current population estimates were not reported. But according to the USFWS, the fisher population is rebounding thanks to a number of partners—federal, state, non-profit organizations and Native nations—that have come together in California, Oregon and Washington to conserve fisher habitat and restore the animals’ numbers. Ongoing conservation actions include implementation of Candidate Conservation Agreements. One agreement in California between the USFWS and a timber company is protecting habitat on more than one million acres in 16 counties.

In Washington, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, Conservation Northwest, the government of British Columbia and other conservation partners have been working with the USFWS to restore fisher populations since 2008. Between 2008 and 2010, 50 female and 40 male fishers were captured in central British Columbia and relocated to Olympic National Park to reintroduce the species there. The population is being monitored.

Native nations working to help preserve fisher habitat and restore the Western fisher population in Washington are Elwha Klallam, Makah, Quinault, and Yakama; in Oregon, Coquille, Klamath, and Siletz; and in California, the Hoopa, Tule River and Yurok.

“We look forward to continuing to work with our federal, state and local partners to help ensure future habitat for this population,” Lohoefener said.

Below, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Laura Finely explains the biology and habitat of the fisher.

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