Resources Crunch Denies Fishers Endangered Listing

WASHINGTON, DC, April 9, 2004 (ENS) - Even experienced West Coast woodsmen have never seen a fisher. Dependent on vanishing old-growth forests, these predators in the weasel family are so few that they deserve federal protection as a threatened or endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday, but the fisher will not receive this protection due to a lack of money and staff.

The Service says its scarce resources would be better spent "on species at greater risk," and it will consider the fisher, Martes pennanti, as a "candidate" for future threatened or endangered status.

“We believe that the fisher faces biological threats that are sufficient to warrant listing,” said Steve Thompson, manager of the Service’s California-Nevada operations office. “However, we think the best use of our resources is to work with those parties interested in fisher conservation strategies, in an effort to eliminate the need for listing.”

But rather than working with the Service, the conservation groups concerned about the fisher are taking the agency to court over this decision.

"The Bush administration's further delay of protection for the fisher is illegal. We intend to fight the decision in court," said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations that petitioned for listing of the species as endangered.


Historically, fishers in the Pacific states occurred in forests throughout western Washington and Oregon, northern California, and the Sierra Nevada. (Photo courtesy FWS)
On December 5, 2000, the Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition to list and designate critical habitat for a distinct population segment of the fisher in portions of California, Oregon, and Washington.

The petitioners included the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, American Lands, Biodiversity Legal Foundation, and the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation.

On April 4, 2003, the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California ordered the Service to complete its 12 month status review of the fisher and submit it for publication in the Federal Register by April 3, 2004.

The Service says its formal finding of “warranted but precluded by other, higher priority listing actions” meets that requirement.

But the petitioning groups say the Endangered Species Act allows the government to delay listing a species by declaring it "warranted but precluded" if it can demonstrate other species are more in need of protection and hence a higher priority for listing, and that they are making "expeditious progress" towards listing these other species. The groups say neither criterion applies in the case of the fisher.

The Bush administration has the poorest listing record of any administration since the Endangered Species Act was passed, the groups charge. To date, the administration has listed only 29 species. By comparison, the Clinton administration listed 394 species during its first term.

The Bush administration is the only presidency in the history of the Endangered Species Act not to have listed a single species except in response to petitions and lawsuits by scientists and environmental groups. The Bush administration is also the first presidency to deny listing for more species than it has listed, 36 species have been denied, a record the does not show "expeditious progress toward listing species," the groups say.


Logs felled in the Sierra Nevada forest awaiting transport to market (Photo courtesy National Forest Protection Alliance)
The administration has also weakened protections for the fisher's old-growth forest habitats, the groups warn. In California's Sierra Nevada region, the administration changed the Sierra Nevada Framework, a plan that was in part designed to protect the fisher, to allow more logging in the name of wildfire fuels reduction.

In the Northwest, the administration weakened protections for old-growth forests through rule changes that removed the Survey and Manage Program and weakened the Aquatic Conservation Strategy of the Northwest Forest Plan.

"The Bush administration will stop at nothing to please its friends and campaign contributors in the timber industry," said Craig Thomas, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, "even if it means driving species to extinction and allowing further degradation of west coast forests."

In its 12 month review, the Service found that the fisher in Washington, Oregon and California is a “distinct population segment” of the entire fisher species, based on its genetics, behavior, distribution and ecology.

The West Coast population of the Pacific fisher is endangered by habitat loss and fragmentation, small population sizes and isolation, and human-caused mortality from incidental trapping and vehicle collisions.

The Service found that protection provided for the species by other federal, state or local laws may be not be sufficient to recover the species.

Despite their name, fishers do not catch or eat fish. Though no one knows for sure, the Service speculates that they received their name from early settlers from Europe who noticed the fisher’s similarity to the European polecat, which was known as a fitch, fitchet, or fitchew.

Recent studies have documented three fisher populations – one in the Siskiyou, Klamath, and Trinity ranges in northwestern California and southern Oregon, another in the southern Sierra Nevada, and a reintroduced population in the Cascades in southern Oregon. In Washington, the fisher is considered either likely to have disappeared, or reduced to scattered individuals.

Fishers are about the size of a house cat with the body type of a stocky weasel. Their fur ranges in color from dark brown to black, with lighter colored fur around the face and shoulders. Fast, agile and adept at climbing trees, fishers eat squirrels, hares, mice and birds.

Under the Endangered Species Act, a warranted but precluded finding requires subsequent annual reviews. The reviews must be conducted either until a listing proposal is published, or until there is new information establishing that listing is no longer warranted.