A coalition of conservation groups today intervened in defense of the Pacific fisher, a relative of the mink that depends on old-growth forest ecosystems for its survival. A timber industry lawsuit filed in January seeks to remove the Pacific fisher from the list of species that are candidates for protection as a threatened or endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act. The timber industry doesn’t want to see the fisher protected because protection might limit the industry’s access to large trees.
In 2000, conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the fisher under the Endangered Species Act. In April 2004, the service determined that the Pacific fisher is indeed critically imperiled and warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act but that such protection was precluded by other actions to protect species. Instead, the agency placed the Pacific fisher on the growing list of species that are considered "candidates" for eventual protection under the act.
"The fisher made it into the emergency room’s waiting area, but it is still waiting to see a doctor," said Noah Greenwald from the Center for Biological Diversity. "Timber interests can’t claim harm from protection that has yet to be enacted. The real culprit here is excessive logging that has resulted in the loss of forest habitat throughout the West Coast."
Represented by the anti-wildlife firm Pacific Legal Foundation, Sierra Forest Product’s lawsuit bizarrely claims that the Pacific fisher is a "distinct population segment" of a subspecies and that the Fish and Wildlife Service lacks the authority to consider such wildlife for protection under the Endangered Species Act no matter how imperiled it may be. Pacific Legal Foundation has been pressing this legal theory across the West Coast with little success. For example, Pacific Legal Foundation represented development interests near Seattle in arguing that the Puget Sound distinct population segment of the orca is ineligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Although they lost this argument, they continue to sell their clients a bill of goods based on a flawed legal theory. Nevertheless, if they were successful, it could severely limit the federal government’s ability to prevent regional extinction of iconic species like the orca in Puget Sound or the fisher on the West Coast.
Fishers once inhabited large areas of the Cascade and the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. Today, due to logging, trapping, and development, the fisher survives only in the southern Sierra Nevada and the Klamath region of northern California and southern Oregon.
"The science is in. The fisher is on the brink of extinction on the West Coast, and the window for recovery is closing fast," said Greg Loarie of Earthjustice who is representing the coalition in the intervention. "To suggest that the Endangered Species Act is powerless to protect the Pacific fisher is to profoundly misread the law."
Although the fisher’s status as a candidate for listing affords it absolutely no protection under the law, concern for the fisher’s continued viability on the West Cast has been nevertheless a driving force behind recent forest management decisions in the Sierra Nevada, including the Sierra Nevada Framework and the Giant Sequoia National Monument Management Plan.
The fisher is a relative of the otter, mink,and pine marten. Contrary to its name, the fisher does not eat fish. The name probably relates to a poor translation of the name for the European polecat, which is a relative of the fisher and is called the fitch ferret, fichet,or fitche. Instead of fish, the fisher has a diverse diet, eating small mammals, snowshoe hare, porcupine, birds, carrion, fruit, and truffles. Because it is the only animal that regularly preys on porcupines, which often kill or damage small trees, the timber industry reintroduced the fisher to many parts of the U.S., including the southern Cascades of Oregon. The fisher kills porcupines with repeated bites to the face, devouring the porcupine via the quill-less underbelly. Where fisher reintroductions have been successful, porcupines have indeed declined in number.
Endangered status for the fisher would require protection for old-growth forests, benefiting the entire ecosystem. It would provide funding for research and boosted efforts to reintroduce the fisher into Oregon and Washington.