A California Superior Court recently affirmed that Pacific fishers, a rare, forest-dwelling carnivore, are protected as candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). The candidate status means that fishers are protected from logging and other activities that threaten their well-being while the California Fish and Game Commission decides whether to protect fishers permanently as threatened or endangered. The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity.
A close relative of the wolverine and mink, the fisher once thrived in old-growth forests along the West Coast and is an important indicator of forest ecosystem health. Today, because of poorly managed logging, historic trapping and developmental pressures, among other factors, fishers are almost extinct in Washington and Oregon and only two small populations remain in California: one in northwestern California and another in the southern Sierra Nevada. These isolated populations are at substantial risk from logging, habitat fragmentation, disease, pesticides, traffic and development. Gaining permanent CESA protection will aid the recovery of California fishers and benefit forest ecosystems hit hard by excessive logging during the last century.
“This decision hopefully marks a turning point for fisher conservation in California,” said Justin Augustine, a Center attorney. “We are optimistic that the protections fishers now receive will be supported by the Department as they redo their review of the species’ status and comply with the Court’s Order to rely on the best available science.”
“Protecting fishers is a good thing for California’s majestic forests and all the benefits they provide us, from clean drinking water to buffers against climate change,” said Erin Tobin, an attorney at Earthjustice. “Now it is time for the Commission to listen to the science and follow the law, which can only mean one thing—permanently protecting fishers.”
The Center petitioned the Commission in January 2008 to list the fisher as threatened or endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. The Commission’s acceptance of the Center’s petition triggered a 12-month review by the Department of Fish and Game (Department) of the overall status of fishers in California. At the conclusion of that review, Department managers significantly altered a draft status report to downplay threats to the fisher identified by its own staff scientists.
The Department’s final recommendation not to protect fishers in California was heavily criticized by independent biologists. Only the timber industry supported the Department’s decision to recommend against state protection. The Commission denied the petition on September 15, 2010, prompting the Center’s lawsuit seeking reversal of the denial.
In 2012, Judge Harold Kahn of the San Francisco Superior Court ordered the Commission to reconsider whether fishers should be protected permanently and for the Department to obtain “independent and competent peer review” of its status report for the fisher. The new order, issued last week, came in response to the Commission’s request for clarification whether fisher should be protected pending further evaluation by the agencies.