FISHERS: RECLAIMING THE COMMONWEALTH
HARRISBURG -- Ten years ago, talk of fishers in Pennsylvania was limited to discussions about what once was or what may have slipped over the border from New York or West Virginia. Today, fishers are repopulating the Commonwealth at a pace that would warm the heart of anyone who enjoys wild things and wild places. Their range, once limited to five release sites, has expanded to 9,000 square miles.
Pennsylvania’s fisher reintroduction got started back in 1994, when 22 fishers were released on the Sproul State Forest in Centre and Clinton counties. Overall, 190 fishers were released in Pennsylvania as part of a reintroduction partnered by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Frostburg State University and Pennsylvania State University. The recovery effort followed about eight decades of fisher-less forests in Penn’s Woods. The furbearers, one of the largest members of the weasel family, disappeared in the state in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a result of deforestation and unregulated trapping.
Fishers never really attained that “public enemy number one” status that mountain lions and wolves did in Pennsylvania’s past. So they weren’t persecuted for being predators or deer thieves. In fact, the fisher never even had a bounty placed on its hide. Not even its relatives – skunks, mink and weasels – were so lucky. A naturally-occurring, low-density species, fishers apparently were limited in most areas and considered valuable. But not even those positive factors could save the species from the mounting trouble it was facing.
The fisher’s decline was hastened by its dependency on large tracts of unbroken forest to accommodate its nomad-like lifestyle. As Penn’s Woods were clear cut in the latter 1800s, fishers became more concentrated and the elusive animal became easy to find. The result was catastrophic to the species. Most Pennsylvanians didn’t notice the loss of the state’s “black cats,” or “tree foxes.” Given their natural uncommonness and penchant for inhabiting the more rugged areas of the state, that shouldn’t be too surprising.
John James Audubon did his best to provide Pennsylvania fishers immortality when in 1844, he used a fisher captured on Dauphin County’s Peters Mountain – six miles north of Harrisburg – as a subject for his illustration of the species in his book, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which for decades served as one of America’s best wildlife reference books. The depicted fisher, taken by a man named S. F. Baird, has been in publication since 1851, and has become without a doubt the most celebrated fisher illustration in the world.
Fishers are about the size of a fox, have a dark brown coat, and are as comfortable scampering in a woodland’s canopy as they are roaming the forest floor. Despite its name, fishers really aren’t into catching fish. They’ll eat fish if they happen upon a dead or discarded one. But they prefer squirrels, rabbits, porcupines and carrion. Fishers, which weigh eight to 15 pounds, depending upon age and sex, are active all winter and have young in March and April. Young fishers disperse from their family unit in late summer.
“Fishers are back in Pennsylvania today because our state’s forests can once again accommodate them,” said Vern Ross, Pennsylvania Game Commission executive director. “As a result, our woods are a little wilder, and a little more exciting. No longer are people just looking to see their first bobcat or coyote. Now, they’re looking to see their first fisher, too.
“Over the past 25 years, we have successfully reintroduced or bolstered the marginal nesting populations of bald eagles, ospreys and peregrine falcons and returned river otters to sizeable chunks of their former range in the Commonwealth. The fisher reintroduction extends this wonderful list of wildlife management success stories and further enhances the diversity of Pennsylvania’s wildlife community.”
Fishers were released in Pennsylvania from 1994 to 1998, and have made great progress expanding their range from release sites in the Quehanna Wild Area, Allegheny National Forest,
Pine Creek Valley and the Pocono Mountains. Fishers also have been expanding their range northward from the Mason-Dixon line deeper and deeper into the Alleghenies and the state’s Ridge and Valley province since the 1980s. The fishers inhabiting Pennsylvania’s southwestern and southcentral counties were not released by the Game Commission. They appear to be the progeny of fishers released in West Virginia in 1969.
Today, fisher management focuses primarily on monitoring their range expansion through fisher highway mortalities and observations by Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officers. Personal sightings also serve as leads for the biologists who track the fisher’s continuing recolonization of the Commonwealth.
“The fisher’s comeback has been something special to follow,” noted Tom Hardisky, Game Commission furbearer biologist. “Our fishers seem to be less dependent on coniferous forests than more northern populations found in New England and Canada. They have adapted to predominantly deciduous forests and that surely increases their range potential in Pennsylvania.
“Our field work has shown that fishers are partial to forests with a closed tree canopy and cavity trees. That means you’re probably not going to see a fisher in a young forest or woodlot. But if you get into the state’s mountainous ‘big woods country,’ there’s always a possibility that you’ll see a fisher scampering across the road or up the side of a tree.”
Although habitat plays a critical role in determining where fishers will occur, the availability and diversity of prey species also is significant.
“Fishers are opportunistic feeders,” Hardisky said. “They’ll hunt everything from squirrels and raccoons to porcupines and rabbits. They also have demonstrated an ability to make feeding adjustments that include raiding hawk and owl nests, eating road-killed deer and preying on livestock. In fact, the last known native fisher killed in the state was shot for stealing chickens in the Bird-in-Hand area of Lancaster County in 1896!”
Fishers have reclaimed more than a quarter of Pennsylvania and there’s no reason to doubt that the species won’t continue its incredible recovery. Each passing year, the agency receives more fisher sighting reports from hikers and hunters, as well as homeowners and motorists. Some sightings, such as Game Commission surveyor Dave Hummel’s, document the first fisher sighting in Blair County in more than 100 years. Hummel saw his first fisher as he and a survey crew were on State Game Lands 198.
“It was about noon when the fisher came down off an embankment and sat down in the middle of a dirt road about 30 yards away and looked right at us,” Hummel said. “We sat there stunned by this rare sight! Let’s face it, Blair County isn’t exactly the first place most people would go to see a fisher. It was like finding a moose in Schuylkill County.”
Other sightings, such as Game Commission Southwest Region Director Matt Hough’s, are somewhat unprecedented. Hough’s fisher encounter occurred two years ago while he was hiking at daybreak on a pipeline in the Alleghenies on State Game Lands 42 in Somerset County. Suddenly, he said, the still morning air was pierced by the distress bleat of a fawn. As the animal fled what Hough initially thought was a coyote or black bear, he pinpointed it in the mountain laurel thicket about 30 yards off the road.
Hough decided to investigate. He picked up a rock and cautiously moved toward the muffled bleats in the thicket. He soon noticed the flailing legs of the fawn, but failed to see the large predator he had convinced himself would be there. As he got a better view of the fawn, his eyes quickly found the aggressor. It was a fisher, and it still had the fawn by the neck.
“I told myself, ‘Oh my God, it’s a fisher,’” Hough said. “A big fisher! There was no doubt. I was right on top of it. The fisher bolted just as soon as it recognized that I was moving in on its kill. As quickly as it began, it was over. Biologists have since informed me that this incident is highly unusual for fishers, and I can assure you, it surely was unusual for me.”
Not every fisher encounter is as dramatic as Hough’s. Karen Martin, a purchasing agent at the Game Commission Northeast Region office in Dallas, saw her first fisher while deer hunting about four years ago in Luzerne County.
“I saw it a couple of hours after daybreak, moving silently along a stone wall as I watched it, in awe, for about five minutes,” Martin explained. “It was completely unaware that I was above it in my tree-stand. What a beautiful animal.”
If you encounter a fisher in the wild, or come upon a fisher killed on the highway, the Game Commission is interested in your story. Please take a moment to write down the particulars – county, township, near what landmark or road, time found – and report it to the agency, especially those reports from southeastern and western counties. Comments can be sent via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or sent via U.S. Mail to: PA Game Commission, Bureau of Wildlife Management, ATTN: Fisher Sighting, 2001 Elmerton Ave., Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797. To learn more about fishers, visit the agency’s website (www.pgc.state.pa.us), click on “Wildlife,” then choose “Assorted Wildlife Notes,” and select “Fisher.”