The return of fishers to the Finger Lakes region
Have you heard people mention that the predatory wildlife species known as the fisher is establishing a population in New York State? Maybe you’ve even seen one yourself or know someone who has. Fishers are the newest predatory species being talked about in NY, but they are not new to the area. Fishers were a common wildlife species in NY and much of the northeast, until they were trapped to near extinction by the 1930s.
The fisher (Pekania pennant) is a member of the mustelid, or weasel family, and is native to North American coniferous and mixed forests, living a semi-arboreal, or tree-climbing, lifestyle, sometimes denning in tree cavities tens to hundreds of feet off the ground. A variety of structures can serve as dens such as cavities in trees or rocky outcrops, hollow logs, brush piles and underground burrows. Females tend to select tree cavities or hollowed out portions of trees, high above the ground when with young.
A fisher’s coat is typically dark brown, dense and glossy but can be light brown to dark blackish-brown with the face, neck and shoulders sometimes being slightly gray or lighter brown. They can range from 32 to 47 inches in length, with a long bushy tail. Females weigh between 4 to 6 pounds and males 7 to 12 pounds. The legs of a fisher are short and stout, and they have a long, low profile when moving along the ground. Their feet are equipped with retractable claws, which they use for climbing and hind feet can turn nearly 180 degrees backwards, allowing them to descend trees head-first. Fishers are nocturnal, venturing out most often in the evening hours. Males have a more expansive home range than females, but territories of males rarely overlap, indicating they are territorial. Scent glands may be used to mark territories or attract potential mates.
Fisher are known as opportunistic predators, meaning they are generalists (not too picky and will eat about anything they find) and will change their hunting strategy if encountering prey they are not searching for. Their diet consists of rabbits, squirrels, mice, birds, carrion (decaying flesh), berries, fruits and nuts. Fishers have been recorded to sometimes travel a hundred miles over the course of a few weeks for food. They are also one of the few predators that will attack porcupines, and regularly prey on them. There are not many predators that will mess with a fisher though. In the past, prior to their own extirpation (local extinction), wolves and cougars were their primary predators. Today, a coyote or bobcat might go after one, but the fisher is a fierce competitor, often deterring a fatal attack and are therefore known to have no natural enemies. Although fishers are vicious hunters, they are not aggressive towards humans.
Fishers were extirpated from much of the northeast during the 1800s and early 1900s when forests were cleared and trapping was unregulated. As farmsteads were abandoned over the years and the land transitioned back to forested, fisher populations reestablished in some areas. Overall fisher populations were still very low or extirpated in many areas though, leading to trapping regulations and reintroduction programs, which have proven effective in restoring
populations. Populations are now once again found in southern Canada, New England and New York, scattered locations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. In NY, fisher can be found throughout approximately 26,000 square miles of forested habitat within the northern, eastern and southeastern parts of the state and recently they have begun to return to the southern tier of central and western NY.
The NYS Fisher Management Plan was completed in 2015 and guides DEC actions and decisions related to management of fisher population in NY. The plan focuses on two primary goals: 1) Maintain or enhance fisher populations in all areas of the state where suitable habitat exists, and 2) Provide for the sustainable use and enjoyment of fishers by the public. The plan collects data on fisher populations throughout the state and uses this information to inform and adjust fisher trapping regulations and establish new trapping opportunities in some parts of the state. Current and updated trapping regulations include:
· Reducing the fisher (and marten) trapping season from 46 days to 30 days in select Adirondack Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) in the Northern Zone.
· Establishing a 6-day fisher trapping season in selected WMUs in Central/Western NY.
· Requiring a free special permit for all fisher trapping. The special permit will enable the DEC to collect important data for managing fisher harvests.
For more information on zones, regulations and permits, and fishers visit DEC’s website at https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/9357.html
Laura Bailey is Cornell Cooperative Extension of Yates County natural resources educator and Northwest regional director of the Master Forest Owner (MFO) Program.