Despite the unfamiliar terrain, it took just a few seconds for her to decide that the fern-filled forest looked a lot more inviting than her wooden crate.
As she bounded off across a creek, the fisher — a small but powerful predator that’s related to weasels and wolverines and is about the size of a house cat — became one of the first of her species to roam the Cascade Mountains in 70 years.
Amid a small crowd of cheering onlookers Dec. 3, wildlife officials released the first seven fishers into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest south of Mount Rainier as part of a planned reintroduction of dozens of animals brought from British Columbia.
Fluffy black tails bounced as each fled its box and took off into the dense forest.
They definitely look cute, but they are tough. These guys are voracious predators; they’ll eat a porcupine for lunch.”
Dave Werntz, science and conservation director for Conservation Northwest
Despite their name, the mostly nocturnal animals don’t eat fish. Instead, they prefer snowshoe hare, rodents and birds, in addition to being one of the few carnivores tough enough to hunt porcupine.
A century ago, trappers targeted these animals for their thick fur, and by the 1950s, there were none left in Washington, said Jeff Lewis, biologist and leader of the fisher recovery project for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We’ve still got a lot of habitat, and if we put enough fishers out there, we can get back one of these animals we didn’t manage well in the past,” Lewis said.
He pointed to the successful example of how about 90 fishers released in the Olympic peninsula from 2008-10 have established a healthy and reproducing population.
That’s what officials want for the Cascades, where they plan to release 40 this winter and another 40 next year in and around Mount Rainier.
Exactly how far these fishers and hopefully their descendents will spread remains unknown.
“This is an experiment, but we know they can cover a lot of terrain,” said Tara Chestnut, ecologist for Mount Rainier National Park. “They tend to stay a little lower in elevation than wolverines, but they could head down south or over to the east side.”
Biologists will keep track of the animals with small radio transmitters that were surgically inserted into their bellies before release.
Werntz said the implanted transmitters were a big improvement over the more commonly used radio collars, which can get in the way of natural behavior such as squeezing into log cavities for shelter or in search of prey.
The fishers were caught by trappers around Williams Lake, northeast of Vancouver, British Columbia.
While listed as endangered in Washington, the population in Canada is robust enough that a percentage can be trapped each year. Washington pays trappers $600 for each live fisher in good condition — considerably more than their pelts are worth, Werntz said.
The relocation is timed for the start of winter because the animals are easier to track and trap in the snow, he added.
Some spent several weeks in captivity before making the trip to Washington in individual plywood boxes. As more are caught, they’ll be brought down as well.
The goal is to set about 40 loose in Washington before February, Chestnut said. That’s so the females have enough time to make themselves at home and find dens before it’s hoped they give birth in March or April.
It wasn’t clear during the pre-release exams if any of the four females were pregnant, but Chestnut said she’s optimistic.
“The females have this amazing super power to be almost pregnant — they breed in the spring and then they hang on to the fertilized eggs,” she said. “The following spring, if conditions are favorable, they’ll allow it to implant.”
This ability to delay reproduction also provides a boost to the reintroduction effort, because those future offspring likely have different fathers than the males brought to the area, giving the small new population more genetic diversity, Chestnut added.
“Our fingers are crossed,” she said.
Each female can have from one to four kits, which she’ll raise for the summer until they spread out to spend their lives on solitary hunting missions.
“And for those babies, this will be home,” Werntz said. “They are totally equipped to thrive here.”
And each fisher that dashed off into the forest when their crates opened seemed to agree: this looks good.
“If the mountains and forests here could talk, they would say ‘Welcome back, fisher,’ ” said Mitch Friedman, director of Conservation Northwest. “If the porcupines could talk, they’d say ‘Run!’ ”