Fisher Restoration Supported Through Wildlife Restoration Funds

For decades, Wildlife Restoration grant funds — supported through excise tax on sporting arms, ammunition and archery equipment, as well as revenue from state hunting license and permit fees — have supported fisher restoration, reintroduction, research and monitoring across much of the fisher’s range.

Fisher Restoration Supported Through Wildlife Restoration Funds

Biologist Adam Bleau releases collared fisher in New York as part of monitoring research into fisher population dynamics. (Photo courtesy of New York Department of Environmental Conservation)

Found only in North America, fisher live in forested and semi-forested areas in Canada and the northern United States. Sometimes called fisher cats, these mammals are one of the largest members of the weasel family. They have the typical weasel shape with a long, slender body, short legs, and thick fur. Pressure from logging and habitat changes for agriculture and development in the late 18th and early 19th century led to the decline of fisher across most of the eastern United States. The value of fisher fur and their unregulated historic harvest also contributed to population decline.

Today, thanks to conservation efforts, research and regulated harvest, fisher populations are sustainably managed by state fish and wildlife agencies. In New England and the Mid-Atlantic region, Wildlife Restoration grants, funded through a partnership that uses manufacture excise tax on sporting arms, ammunition, and archery equipment as well as revenue from state hunting license and permit fees, have funded population assessments to expand and increase fisher populations and funded research into the needs of the species. 

“New Hampshire is lucky, the state did not experience the same level of development as our neighbors, and we have always maintained a fisher population in the state,” said Patrick Tate, wildlife biologist at New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Other states experienced larger fisher declines, and some experienced total loss of fisher within their borders. “Fisher from our state have been moved to help build populations in states like Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia,” added Tate. “For decades, our state has used Wildlife Restoration funds for a variety of research projects to ensure we maintain the fisher for future generations.”

In recent years, New Hampshire Fish and Game Department has used Wildlife Restoration funds to work alongside the University of New Hampshire to conduct a trail camera study with 175 cameras capturing images of furbearer species including fisher, coyote, bobcat and fox. Along with the network of cameras, researchers are using GPS collars to track and monitor survival and mortalities of fisher. Upon the death of a fisher, the collars transmit a mortality signal for field recovery. Once the animal is recovered, the Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory at UNH will run an analysis for any toxins, viruses, bacteria and to identify the likely cause of death.

Researchers use trail cameras to capture footage of three fisher foraging in New Hampshire forest. (Photo courtesy of Rem Moll/University of New Hampshire)
Researchers use trail cameras to capture footage of three fisher foraging in New Hampshire forest. (Photo courtesy of Rem Moll/University of New Hampshire)

“Through this partnership we are learning more about the current and future threats to fisher, and we can make informed management decisions,” said Tate.

“Fisher are a native species in Connecticut and regularly prey on small mammals like squirrels and mice, which is essential for a balanced, healthy ecosystem,” said Jason Hawley, furbearer program biologists at Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection. Key to maintaining healthy fisher populations after their reintroduction in 1988 has been research to understand habitat needs such as den sites and areas for highway crossings and the historic and current monitoring of population size and dynamics of fisher.

Connecticut has seen a fisher decline in recent years, and Hawley and his colleagues are using Wildlife Restoration funds to conduct a 3-year research project to study fisher mortality and changes to population size. “The project totals around $350,000 and is entirely supported through Wildlife Restoration funds,” Hawley said. “The funds support staff time, purchase of the collars for adult fisher, and transmitters for young fisher known as kits.”

Connecticut is currently in the first year of the study capturing and collaring 28 fisher to test the best collar types for the study. Like in New Hampshire, these collars will help researchers monitor fisher movements and habitat preferences and send a signal to Hawley and his team if the collared fisher dies. Hawley’s team is including transmitters for kits in this study to gain data on the survival of young fisher as well as adults. “It is important for species management to understand the age of a population and survival at different life stages.” During the next 2 years, 100 fisher will be captured, collared and monitored with the support of Wildlife Restoration funds. 

In neighboring Rhode Island, Wildlife Restoration funds are used to support staff time that work on furbearer species including fisher, support trail camera and collar monitoring research, and aid in course development for trapping education.

“The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife and former University of Rhode Island PhD student Laken Ganoe collaborated to trap and collar 56 fisher to collect data on resource selection and population demographics across the state,” said Morgan Lucot, biologist with the Division of Fish and Wildlife. The collaring and trail camera studies have been completed, and Dr. Ganoe is currently in the process of publishing the results from these projects.

The fisher in this study are the first ones that have been collared for monitoring in Rhode Island history. Prior to this study, data on fisher in Rhode Island was primarily limited to information collected during trapping harvest, with trappers often acting as citizen scientists sharing their observation and harvest data with state agency officials.

Lucot said, “Our licensed trappers are valuable partners in fisher management, they provide harvest data, and this community was one of the first to report a decline in fisher numbers with some self-selecting to not harvest fisher in recent years.”

Lucot goes on to explain that furbearer management efforts in Rhode Island go beyond field research. “Along with supporting research, Wildlife Restoration funds have also supported course development for Rhode Islanders to better understand the regulated trapping fundamentals and the role trappers can play.” The state agency offers a day-long course covering various aspects of trapping including the history of trapping, conservation and trapping regulations, and the biology of different target species in Rhode Island. 

In New York State, fisher can be found throughout approximately 26,000 square miles of forested habitat. Biologists at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation have placed radio and GPS collars on fisher in different parts of the state including the Adirondack Mountains.

“Through this Wildlife Restoration funded research, we were able to see areas where the fisher is doing well and where populations may be declining, with this information we can expand our research into why a certain area may be experiencing a decline,” said Mandy Watson, biologist with the agency. Along with the collar monitoring, the agency has used a network of cameras to capture images of fisher, and also collected fisher fur samples. The samples were collected using gun brushes mounted on a tree below bait to collect hair from fisher. These samples allow researchers to collect data on individual fisher.

“With the data from this research, we reduced the fisher trapping season in select Adirondack Wildlife Management Units where populations had declined,” added Watson. “Like in other states, we saw trappers self-selecting to not harvest fisher.”

Watson goes on to add that trappers were vital in the data collection effort as they helped researchers capture fishers to be collared as part of the monitoring study. “Thanks to the help of the trapping community sharing their knowledge and the researchers collecting data, we have more information about the current state of fisher in New York, and we can share these findings with other agencies.”

(Photo courtesy of Bethany Weeks)
(Photo courtesy of Bethany Weeks)

For decades, Wildlife Restoration grant funds have supported fisher restoration, reintroduction, research, and monitoring across much of the fisher’s range. Most of our fisher knowledge including their habitat requirements, movements and travel corridors, the factors affecting survival, food habits, and the impacts of pesticides has been gained by studies funded with Wildlife Restoration grants. Research efforts conducted by state fish and wildlife agencies and their partners have provided important information for management decisions to ensure fisher are scientifically managed and remain part of the New England and Mid-Atlantic ecosystems now and into the future.



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