The Fisher

by Rebecca on April 22, 2011

in Animal Stories

A friend recently found a fisher in her backyard. Since I’d never heard of it, I did a little research and found this interesting article in the New York Times.

A Fierce Predator Makes a Home in the Suburbs

WEST GREENWICH, R.I. — Last summer, Kerry Beaudry heard yelping from her German shepherd, Holly, and went outside to investigate. What she found still gives her chills. A small, mangy creature was on top of Holly, digging its claws into the scruff of her neck and gnawing at her face.

“I had never seen anything like it,” Ms. Beaudry recalled. “I didn’t know what it was. It kind of looked like a fox. But it was very, very ratty looking and had fangs and claws. It was creepy looking, but not that big.”

The animal was a fisher, a weasel-like predator of the deep woods that was saved from extinction in the Northeast and Midwest and has migrated into suburban backyards.

The small, sleek animal has cultivated a reputation as a ferocious killer of small pets, including cats and chickens, putting animal owners on edge. Holly escaped when Ms. Beaudry’s husband beat the fisher away with a broom.

At the same time, the fisher’s ability to adapt quickly to non-native habitats astounds biologists, who see it as a conservation success. Population statistics are hard to come by, because the animal is difficult to spot and large-scale studies have not been done. But biologists say that counts of road kill as well as the fisher’s presence in new territories clearly indicate its expanding numbers.

“Ten to 15 years ago, biologists said fishers only lived in deep forested areas, like the central Adirondacks, and now you find them in farmland and the suburbs,” said Gordon Batcheller, a wildlife biologist with the New York State Environmental Conservation Department.

Sinewy, with bushy tails and beady eyes, fishers weigh 5 to 15 pounds and live on land and in trees. They are mainly carnivorous, typically eating squirrels, mice, voles and other small animals, as well as nuts and seeds. Fishers are also one of the porcupine’s few enemies, killing it by attacking its snout and flipping it on its back.

“Fishers are pretty vicious,” said Michelle Johnson, the animal control officer in West Greenwich.

The fisher belongs to the mustelid family, which includes weasels, otters and wolverines. It has the aggressive, carnivorous temperament of a wolverine and can climb trees like a marten. Like weasels, a fisher will kill multiple animals at a time in a confined space. Fishers are nocturnal and not easily spotted.

Humans have been the fisher’s biggest enemy, as deforestation and trapping for its pelt helped push it toward extinction early in the 20th century.

“Fishers were wiped out in many areas,” said Trina Moruzzi, a wildlife biologist with the Massachusetts Fish and Game Department. “In Massachusetts, they were no longer found in the state.”

Many Eastern and Midwestern states started reintroducing fishers last century to help thin porcupines, which were attacking trees. Vermont was the first state to bring back fishers, releasing 125 in the 1950s. Twenty years later, the species was flourishing.

What biologists did not know was that the fishers were not only thriving, but also moving. The Vermont fishers made their way to southern New Hampshire and north-central Massachusetts, which had ample natural forest, as well as trees planted for suburban developments. More recently, fishers were reintroduced in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

As its population expanded, so did its range, Dr. Moruzzi said. Male fishers are extremely territorial, moving elsewhere if another male arrives. Female fishers tend to overlap one another, Dr. Moruzzi said. Males enter a female’s territory to mate each spring and set off on their own for a year.

“There’s only so many territories that can be inhabited,” Dr. Moruzzi said. “And that’s how fishers have gone into so many new areas.”

To read more see: A Fierce Predator Makes a Home in the Suburbs

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