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Monday Reads: The Pacific Fisher & Socks Edition

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View Shirley Hao's blog posts
24 September 2012, 3:11 PM
Who is the Pacific fisher, and why does he want your socks?
The last, valiant moments of a bait-filled sock, doing his part for science. (Courtesy of SNAMP)

Deep in California’s Sierra Nevada, a field biologist is preparing a delicacy favored by one of the most elusive hunters of the forest. The meal is known—literally—as “Chicken-in-a-Sock.”

The connoisseur is the imperiled Pacific fisher (Martes pennanti). The fur trade devastated the species (the fisher’s coat, no less splendid than that of his close relations, the wolverine and mink, was highly coveted), as did logging. Denning in large trees and rocky crevices and hunting through a sprawling home range, this solitary carnivore depends on undisturbed landscapes of old growth forests. Few still exist, and those that do are often fragmented by roads and other development.

A rare photo of a Pacific fisher in daylight. (Courtesy of SNAMP)Can you spot the fisher?
A rare daylight photo capture. (SNAMP)

In California, only two far-flung populations remain: one along the Oregon border and another in the southern Sierra Nevada. One is the subject of a multi-year study by UC Berkeley’s Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project, which is investigating the impact of vegetation management plans on the animal’s population in the area. The study uses bait stations and motion-activated cameras to aid in gathering data. The key to convincing fishers to sit still long enough for a clear photo? Socks. Delicious, meat-filled socks.

In order to get to the food, fishers must first get through the sock, inadvertently pausing for the camera. Hundreds of socks were soon giving their lives to science (and great photos).

Team members raided their sock drawers. As supplies dwindled, they turned to big box stores, diverting valuable project funds. And then, they thought about other people’s sock drawers.

Shortly before Christmas, a blog post appeared: Do you have socks of the single-variety, their mates long since abducted by UFOs or retired by hole-y disfigurements? Send them on down. Reduce, reuse, recycle: your socks will go to a good cause.

Socks arrived: Little ones children had outgrown, sporty ones nonagenarians no longer played tennis in, gaudy holiday ones re-gifted with relief, and, heartwarmingly, orphaned ones whose recently deceased owners had loved mountains.

Just a few days worth of sock donations. (SNAMP)Just a few days worth of sock donations. (SNAMP)

Within a month, the team had enough socks for the remainder of the study. Socks unsuitable for fisher duty (ankle socks and sultry, sheer ones) were donated to shelters; prime specimens in surplus were bartered to other wildlife teams. In a scientific sleight of hand, gifts of hosiery were turned into a wealth of research data on these critically important animals.

Like all predators, fishers play an integral role in the overall health of the ecosystem, including regulating the population of its prey species. Notably, fishers are the only animal known to regularly dine on porcupines. They have long been the target of timber interests, who have had an eye on the remaining old growths fishers need to survive. (Ironically, the timber industry was for the fishers, before it was against them, as porcupines can seriously damage trees.)

Earthjustice has fought for the Pacific fisher for more than a decade, bringing litigation seeking endangered species protections, as well as restoring safeguards stripped by the revised Sierra Nevada Framework management plan. The recent court ruling ordering the California Fish and Game Commission to reconsider its decision to deny state Endangered Species Act protection to the fisher is a significant step forward in the long battle for the fisher’s future.

As Earthjustice attorney Erin Tobin noted:

“There are probably fewer than 150 adult female fishers left in the entire Sierra Nevada. If ever there were an animal that desperately needs protection, this is it.”

In the meantime, their need for socks, at least, has been happily more than met.

“Chicken-in-a-sock” didn’t just attract hungry Pacific fishers. Take a look at other forest dwellers who took a go at the free food—and got caught by the camera:

Bobcat tries his teeth at 'Chicken-in-a-sock'. (SNAMP) An agile bobcat tries his teeth at 'chicken-in-a-sock'.  (SNAMP)
Fox tries his teeth at 'Chicken-in-a-sock'. (SNAMP) A fox is likewise lured in by the fragrant delight.  (SNAMP)
Pine marten tries his teeth at 'Chicken-in-a-sock'. (SNAMP) A pine marten creeps towards the sock-clad bait.  (SNAMP)
Mountain lions. (SNAMP) A pair of mountain lions, in living color, ponder their 'chicken-in-a-sock' hunting strategy.  (SNAMP)
Bear cubs 'Chicken-in-a-sock'. (SNAMP) Bear cubs curiously wonder what kind of tree grows 'chicken-in-a-sock'.  (SNAMP)
Coyote. (SNAMP) Even coyotes can't resist.  (SNAMP)

More Reads:

I thoroughly enjoyed the article and the pictures. It warms my heart to know that some folks really go the extra mile(s) to help the wildlife and environment. Thank you very much.

Great work and candid photographs not only with the Fishers but all the other wildlife! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing. Most of us will never see wildlife like this. All the best, Tiger

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