The Pacific fisher, an animal in the weasel family that's native to Southern Oregon and Northern California, could get increased protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Wednesday they will propose a local population of the Pacific fisher as threatened under the ESA.
“It’s long overdue,” says George Sexton, conservation director for Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. “There’s a lot of factors conspiring to reduce the population of an already low, threatened population.”
The Ashland-based conservation group is one of a handful that have pushed for stronger fisher protections for years.
The fisher once roamed West Coast forests from British Columbia to Southern California. But now the animal is besieged by threats ranging from old growth forest habitat loss, historic trapping, climate change and rodenticide exposure from illegal marijuana farms.
There are currently around 100 to 500 fishers in California’s Sierra Nevada and between 250 and several thousand in Southern Oregon and Northern California, according to Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. Conservation groups have been advocating for their protection under the ESA since the mid 1990s.
A threatened designation under the ESA would prohibit killing or disturbing the local population known as the “West Coast Distinct Population Segment” of the Pacific fisher.
A threatened designation is less strict than a listing as endangered under the ESA. The lesser protection allows for exceptions to endangered species rules. Those include exemptions for forest management activities like maintaining existing fuel breaks, habitat management and firefighting.
According to Paul Henson, state supervisor for Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Service, balancing fisher protection and forest management practices is a tradeoff. For example, he says, removing rodenticides in illegal marijuana growing operations could further disturb fishers in the short-term but would provide long-term habitat improvements. Likewise, wildfire fuel management could disrupt habitat but also reduce future threats.
“Failing to take some of those actions like managing fuels in an area where you might have a catastrophic fire could be a greater threat to fisher,” Henson says.
But the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center’s George Sexton says the proposed listing falls short.
“Unfortunately, the proposed rule as it currently stands contains some large exceptions to that prohibition on killing a threatened species,” Sexton says.
Sexton says the proposal allows for too many scenarios where fishers could be incidentally killed in the course of logging current timber sale properties or if fishers occupied private tree farms in the future.
Sexton says his and other conservation groups hope to “tune up” the language protecting Pacific fishers during the coming 30-day public comment period, which begins Nov. 7.
The U.S. Department of the Interior will then have six months to decide whether to adopt the proposal.