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Monday Reads: The Pacific Fisher & Socks Edition

Who is the Pacific fisher, and why did he want your socks?

Bait-filled socks in action, in crystal clear photos.

Bait-filled socks in action, in crystal clear photos. (On right, a rare daylight capture of a fisher.)

Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project

Deep in California’s Sierra Nevada, a field biologist prepares 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.

Know Your Species Quiz
The Pacific fisher is thought to be named …
for their expertise in catching fish from fast-flowing streams
after a resemblance to the European polecat
by the famed fur trapper Devon Fisher
Fitchet? Fitche? Fitchew? The origin of ‘fisher’ has been lost to time, but the most likely explanation could be the animal’s resemblance to the European polecat. The three words at the beginning of this answer are thought to be variations on the Dutch word for the European polecat, derived from the root visse (definition: ‘mean-spirited’). And fiche, ficheus, and fichet — French for ‘pelt of polecat’ — are also similar to the fisher's common name. (Lots more on fishers from the American Society of Mammalogists.)

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 meaty core, fishers must first spend a bit of time gnawing their way 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.

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

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.

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.

A Pacific fisher.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Pacific fisher relies on undisturbed landscapes of old growth forests for its survival.

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.

A court ruling in 2012 ordered the California Fish and Game Commission to reconsider its decision to deny state Endangered Species Act protection to the fisher. It is a significant step forward in the long battle for the fisher’s future.

At the time, 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.”

Update, June 2016: Two years after the ruling from Judge Harold Kahn of the San Francisco Superior Court, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service published a proposed rule that would have listed Pacific fishers as threatened. But in April 2016, the Service abruptly reversed course, announcing it would not list the West Coast population of the Pacific fisher as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“For the biologists who have been toiling in the trenches for almost two decades to protect this species, today’s decision is infuriating,” said Earthjustice staff attorney Greg Loarie in response to the agency's withdrawal of its proposed listing rule. Earthjustice has filed a notice of intent to challenge the agency's politically motivated decision.

“For the fisher, the decision could be a death sentence if it’s allowed to stand.”

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

Bonus photos: The "Chicken-in-a-Sock" delicacy attracted more than the fishers. Take a look at a few other visitors who stopped by to investigate (or to taste), unknowingly posing for the remote camera:

An agile bobcat tries his teeth at 'chicken-in-a-sock'. A fox is likewise lured in by the fragrant delight. (SNAMP)
Left: An agile bobcat tries his teeth at 'Chicken-in-a-Sock'. Right: A fox is likewise lured in by the fragrant delight.
Photos courtesy of SNAMP

A pair of mountain lions, in living color, ponder their 'chicken-in-a-sock' hunting strategy. Pine marten tries his teeth at 'Chicken-in-a-sock'. (SNAMP)
Left: A pair of mountain lions, in living color, ponder their 'Chicken-in-a-Sock' hunting strategy. Right: Pine marten tries his teeth at 'Chicken-in-a-Sock'.
Photos courtesy of SNAMP

Bear cubs curiously wonder what kind of tree grows 'chicken-in-a-sock'. Even coyotes can't resist. (SNAMP)
Left: Bear cubs curiously wonder what kind of tree grows 'Chicken-in-a-Sock'. Right: Even coyotes can't resist.
Photos courtesy of SNAMP