Fishers in the Olympics help us think big

The effort to reintroduce fishers into Olympic National Park continues to be an exciting good-news story, but the implications may be even greater than they seem at first glance.

We must wait to see whether the males and females among the 40 or more fishers will find each other. But biologists say there’s a good chance they will, and researchers may discover some dens with kits either this spring or maybe next year.

I had the privilege of seeing five fishers released yesterday near Staircase Ranger Station in Olympic National Park. These were the first animals to be released on the east side of the mountains. For a description of their rapid escape into the woods, see my story and watch the video in today’s Kitsap Sun.

While on the outing, I talked to Jasmine Minbashian of Conservation Northwest about the potential for unexpected results from this experiment. As an example, she wondered about the potential of a trophic cascade, such as seen in Yellowstone Park after the introduction of wolves. In a chain of events, the wolves have done a great favor for fish in the national park.

Wolves not only eat elk at times, but their presence frightens away these animals that love to eat the shoots of aspen trees. Without the elk browsing continuously, the aspens grow into dense vegetation that can provide shade, cover and insects — all to the benefits of fish and other creatures.

Chris Conway of the New York Times does a nice job explaining this in a brief story from Aug. 5, 2007. For a little longer version, see Science Daily, which points out:

Prior to the re-introduction of wolves, scientists found there were many small sprouting shoots of these important tree species, and numbers of large trees 70 years old or more — but practically nothing in between. High populations of grazing ungulates, primarily elk, had grazed on the small tree shoots at leisure and with little fear of attack.

But the ecological damage, researchers say, went far beyond just trees. The loss of trees and shrubs opened the door to significant stream erosion. Beaver dams declined. Food webs broke down, and the chain of effects rippled through birds, insects, fish and other plant and animal species.

For more information about trophic cascades, go to the Web site of Oregon State University, where this issue is being studied in depth.

As for Olympic National Park, the extermination of wolves on the peninsula may have had a cascading effect on species that depend on cottonwood and bigleaf maples. The Fall 2008 issue of Island Geoscience (PDF 732 kb) tells it this way:

In 1890, members of the Press Expedition found the banks of the upper Quinault River “so dense with underbrush as to be almost impenetrable,” they wrote at the time. Logs jammed the rivers, dense tree canopies shaded and cooled the streams, and trout and salmon thrived, along with hundreds of species of plants and animals.

“Today, you go through the same area and instead of dense vegetation that you have to fight through, it’s a park-like stand of predominantly big trees,” said Bill Ripple, a co-author of the study and forestry professor at Oregon State University. “It’s just a different world.”

“Our study shows that there has been almost no recruitment of new cottonwood and bigleaf maple trees since the wolves disappeared, and also likely impacts on streamside shrubs, which are very important for river stability,” said Robert Beschta, lead author of the study and professor emeritus of forest hydrology at OSU. “Decreases in woody plant communities allow river banks to rapidly erode and river channels to widen.”

Efforts to reintroduce wolves to the Olympic Peninsula are on hold for the time being. But we have a lot to think about. What we can learn from the fisher may be much more than the idea that we should have a few more of the furry animals running around.

16 thoughts on “Fishers in the Olympics help us think big

  1. I wrote on the record about the release of Fishers in the Olympics. It may be a great idea, however one should also look at the negatives. Talk to people who live on the east coast where they introduced Fishers to control porcupines. That will give you an idea of what type of predator they are. Might the unintended consequence of reintroduction here decimate populations of protected species that we have paid hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to nurture? The literature on the Fishers says they shy away from areas of human habitation, but again, talk to people who know. It is nearly impossible to keep small domestic animals such as cats or chickens in some places on the east coast because of the intense pressure from Fishers. When I did the math, we are paying about $4000 per Fisher. Fishers were once native and are being reintroduced because they were here at one time. That was close to 80 years ago if I remember correctly. It was said that we are missing an important predator. Is it not possible that some other predator has taken the place of the Fisher in those 80 years? Will we be eliminating…and then paying for another species that goes missing when these larger predators make a comeback?

  2. I also questioned the need to reintroduce the Fishers…the idea being that nature had already filled in the fishers space in the environment…and the Fishers will displace the creature/s that took their place.

  3. A and Sharon,

    You both pose some interesting questions, and I would say your points would be valid if they were not based on the incorrect assumption that another creature has filled the fisher niche in the ecosystem. Fishers occupy a fairly unique place in the ecosystem, and I do not know of any other animal that can totally fill its niche. Another faulty assumption is that fisher will wipe out other endangered species, like owls or murrelets. While there is a concern that they may take a few eggs, looking at the bigger picture, there are much greater threats to the future of these animals – namely loss of their old-growth habitat across their range. Let’s focus on that problem. Lastly, a significant portion of the costs of this project was paid for through private dollars raised through non-profit foundations – not taxpayer dollars. Consider this: humans were the cause of fisher extinction in Washington, we wiped out the species due to overtrapping. We have a responsibilty to right that wrong and fix what what we broke. This is a step towards that.

  4. Jasmine, thanks for your response and I agree in theory that what you suggest is possible and reasonable.

    Your points that humans caused the problem is certainly right…what is wrong is that continued human bumbling to ‘fix’ the wrong already done will likely not work.

    Private funds or public matters not if it is wasted money that could have gone toward something able to be fixed..

    Our human responsibility should be to prevent unthinking events from occurring again…not waste time trying to fix a wrong. We can learn from past thoughtless error and move on.

    The one thing we must never stop is the efforts to clean up our waterways and stop poisoning the environment and its creatures.

    I hope time proves you right.
    Sharon O’Hara

  5. “I would say your points would be valid if they were not based on the incorrect assumption that another creature has filled the fisher niche in the ecosystem.”

    I didn’t mean to imply that any one creature would or could fill the niche left by the missing fisher in the ecosystem.
    I meant to suggest that nature doesn’t usually leave a vacuum and other creatures would have taken over for the fisher in varying degrees. Now that the fisher is back it will no doubt take over its previous spot displacing those creatures that filled in for it….and so it goes.

  6. What I found telling in the story was that the “experts” in charge of “coordinating” the “recovery” were surprised by what the fishers found to be suitable habitat.

    Hmmm….. Makes you wonder about “critical habitat” designations made by other “experts” for other species, doesn’t it?

  7. I was only asking the questions not making assumptions and I do hope that this is a positive in the long run. I’m curious. Why would an efficient predator such as the Fisher not prey on species such as the murrelet? They are talented tree climbers and also will go underground. From the list of their typical prey, it would appear that they are opportunistic and well able to adapt. Who is paying for the project?

  8. Thanks A:
    “There’s an old wives’ tale that fishers are voracious predators and you should take care of your children and keep your children away from them,” Dr. Moruzzi said. “I say they are voracious predators, but only if you’re a squirrel or a rabbit.””

    I’ve read such nonsense for years from people who should know better. Maybe here and now someone can explain to me how a wild ‘voracious predator’ can tell the difference between the acceptable squirrel and rabbit meat meal and the unthinkable and unacceptable…the human child as a meal?
    Meat is meat is… to the ‘voracious predator’.

    Blue Light: “Makes you wonder about “critical habitat” designations made by other “experts” for other species, doesn’t it?”

    Unless the ‘experts’ lived in the wild WITH the species in question, I don’t wonder at all. How can they know unless they live in the field and have a degree of common sense?

    Now, hopefully, the experts will explain – especially why any wild meat-eating critter wouldn’t consider a human baby/child a meal?

  9. The Fisher that I saw near the Whatcom Skagit Border was much larger than the type I hear have been re-introduced. It was much larger than a racoon. I’m glad the introduction was on the Penisula rather the Cascades, as it gives further time for native species to recover.
    And another reason to preserve the Blanchard Mountain travel corridor.
    I am thakful for Conservation NorthWest’s efforts. Peace

  10. This is an interesting conversation.

    I think its great that Conservation Northwest is working to restore the tiny amount of old-growth forest we have left in our state, which is less than 5% of what was originally here. That such a charismatic creature like the Fisher is returning from extinction is a great achievement.

    I think the fears about fishers are somewhat misplaced. The difference between here and the east is that there is a (comparatively) vast area of wilderness for these fishers to call home, whereas the areas cited in the above article where from suburbs where development has taken over established fisher habitat. I hear your concerns, but I really don’t think there is any reason to be afraid.

    Long live the fisher!

  11. Long live ALL our wild creatures and their place in the environment!

    A problem is we human types are crowding them out of habitat and forcing them to live side by side with us….which they seem to adapt to quite well.
    Several times I’ve had the opportunity to watch coyotes work together to catch prey. We had a pond critters visited on a regular basis ( incl. Blue Herons until they fished out the rainbows)…and they once worked hard to lure one of my puppies into the bush and woods on the west end of the pond.
    Luckily, though she wanted to play, she was too smart to be drawn into the woods. Eventually she got close enough that I could grab her.
    Banner Forest is supposed to be a great place for people and critters … what other protected places in KC do we have to equal BF in PO/SK?

  12. Sharon,

    Kitsap County has 5 “heritage” parks totaling 2900 acres. Banner Forest is one (635 acres). There is another one in SK, Coulter Creek heritage park, that is almost 1200 acres. Illahee Preserve (380 acres) and Newberry Hill (247 acres) heritage parks are in central Kitsap. The North Kitsap heritage park is 443 acres. All of these are passive parks, meaning trails (no ballfields).

  13. Blue Light,
    I’ve walked in the Illahee Preserve – wonderful place, great trails, but didn’t realize it was 380 acres of space.

    The south end is ahead with their two heritage parks…great planning for the future!

    I didn’t know about the others.
    Does the county have a map so people can visit the heritage parks? I have no idea where they are.
    Thank you!

  14. Blue Light, You are a wonder!

    Thank you… its a great site and I’ve only just skimmed through it.
    PO/SK has a super amount of space for parks and people and a delight to see it.

    It was a tickle to notice the Parks Board asked for comments and I made mine as follows:

    “Dear Parksboard,

    I’ve only just discovered your website and Pandora’s Box of information and haven’t fully explored the site beyond noticing the south end has the largest amount of superb planned parks and recreation spaces, including Bandex (sp) Park..

    Two quick comments beyond congratulations on the saved park spaces throughout the county:

    1) I noted the Kingston plan seemss choppy and I couldn’t find a planned people trail system around the different park sites.

    2) For the south end:

    In light of the current economic situation, will you consider taking back the tax dollar gulping Howe Farm off lead dog park property and turn it into community vegetable plots for people to rent for a nominal fee? They would be able to feed their families and the dogs still have the other two parks to visit. It doesn’t seem right that people can’t afford good food when the Howe Farm prime cropland is available.
    Will you please put hungry families and their need to grow food ahead of the Howe Farm and 3rd south end off lead dog park?

    The area could be turned back to the dogs in a year or two when the economic crisis is over.”

    Sharon O’Hara

    Thanks again, BL.

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