Fishers Return to North Cascades

On an uncommonly sunny day in early February, I stood in a tract of old-growth forest not far from the Suiattle River to watch a missing mammal return to the North Cascades. With the return of the fisher, this area is one step closer to whole.

The fisher (Pekania pennanti) is one of the largest North American weasels. Adult females weigh four to six pounds and measure about 30 to 36 inches long, including tail, when fully grown. Males are about 20% larger, growing upwards of 13 pounds and nearly four feet long. Despite the name, fish are not a primary prey. Instead, fishers are wolverines of the forest. Highly arboreal, cylindrical in shape, and agile in motion, they are formidable predators of rodents, rabbits, hares, grouse, and other small to medium-sized animals.

fisher running to escape a box, people standing behind it

One of the first fishers to be released on February 6. The common name, fisher, is probably a modern English language corruption of “fitch,” a Middle English term for the pelt of the European polecat (Mustela putorius), also known as the common ferret. Not coincidentally, the colonial Dutch fisse and visse as well as the French fiche and fichet, all words for the polecat, sound quite similar to fisher. (NPS Photo)

Fishers were functionally extirpated from Washington by the mid 20th century due to habitat fragmentation and, especially, unregulated trapping. Surveys in the 1990s and early 2000s failed to find evidence of any viable fisher populations. As a first step to recover the species in the state, a coalition of public agencies, tribes, and private organizations released fishers in Olympic National Park from 2008-2010. This was followed by similar efforts in Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount Rainier National Park from 2015-2017. The North Cascades National Park Service Complex and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest began to host the fisher’s return last fall, which is how I found myself standing in the woods with about twenty other people on February 6.

Fishers prefer mature forests with a high canopy, relatively large diameter trees, and an abundance of downed trees. Dead standing trees are particularly important to fishers, as they den exclusively in tree cavities. The release site for the fishers this day seemed particularly well suited to their needs.

forest and stream

Fortunately and conveniently, healthy populations of fishers remain in British Columbia and Alberta and they serve as the source for the restoration effort. Fishers from western Canada are also genetically similar to those that used to inhabit Washington. Canadian trappers were paid to capture live, healthy animals. The Calgary Zoo temporarily housed the fishers while veterinarians evaluated their health and surgically implanted tiny radio transmitters to assist biologists in tracking them.

Twelve hours before release, these particular animals were still in Calgary. At 1 a.m., the fishers were flown to Abbotsford, British Columbia where they were picked up by biologists and driven into Washington. By early afternoon, a gang of biologists and a few interested souls like me were unloading the cargo and carrying the fishers a short distance to the release site.

Fisher release, Buck Creek Campground, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest_02062019_4

Fishers were transported in specially designed crates. Two fishers, separated by a partition, are in each crate.

view through screened hole of fisher in a box

A fisher peeks through a window toward the outside world.

people carrying wooden crates on forested path

Our group formed a semi-circle around the crates to watch the release. Conversations quieted to a whisper or died in anticipation as the crates were opened one at a time. To coax them out, a screened vent was opened at the top and a volunteer blew a puff of air into the container. I’m unsure if this was as annoying as someone blowing air into my ear, but the trick worked. The fishers shot out like a flash and bolted into the forest.

Six fishers were released that day bringing the total number currently released in the area to 24. The release efforts will continue until about 80 fishers are reintroduced to the area. Biologists will track, monitor, and study the animals to assess survival rates, identify where they go after release and where they establish home ranges, the types of foods they eat, and the diseases and parasites they suffer from.

The effort has a high chance of success. Reintroductions, however, are rarely so simple. Fishers, although not well known among the general public, are relatively non-controversial animals. They don’t evoke the same emotional reactions in people as grizzly bears or wolves, for example.

More than that, however, the forested habitats along the core and margins of the North Cascades are largely intact. Land managers needn’t take extreme, expensive, time-consuming measures to restore the ecosystem to a point where it could support fishers again. It could always support them. We just didn’t allow fishers to survive here.

Because prior generations had the foresight to protect places like North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness, we have the opportunity to restore fishers to land they once knew as home. Situations like these are becoming increasingly uncommon. People have fundamentally altered so much of the Earth to preclude the reintroduction of many extirpated species into their historic ranges. (There’s no substantial habitat available for bison in Iowa, for example.)

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

Potential future fisher habitat along Stetattle Creek in North Cascades National Park.

As humanity’s footprint grows, undeveloped landscapes are increasingly valuable, not for the resources we can exploit within them (including supposedly non-consumptive uses like solitude), but as repositories of biodiversity and ecosystem health. To adapt an idea from Thoreau, future generations, I believe, will measure our legacy not by what we invented and consumed, not by our material wealth, but by what we can afford to let alone.

I’ll probably never see any of these fishers ever again. Even if the population increases to hundreds of individuals, they’ll remain reclusive neighbors. If I’m lucky, I may find a track in fresh snow or its scat on a log. But even that doesn’t matter. I’ll know they are there and I’ll know the landscape is healthier because of it. The return of the fisher represents, at least in one small way, the success of our ability to let one place—North Cascades—alone.

Francis Beilder Forest

Tucked away in a section of Four Holes Swamp, a tributary of the Edisto River in South Carolina, lies a pocket of remarkable forest. Currently owned and managed by the National Audubon Society, Francis Beilder Forest protects the largest virgin bald cypress and tupelo swamp remaining in North America.

silhouette of large bald cypress tree surrounded by other treesBald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a deciduous member of the cypress family (Cupressaceae), which includes juniper, white-cedar, arborvitae, incense-cedar, Sequoia, and redwood. Like hickory trees, however, bald cypress shed their pinnate leaves each fall and grow new leaves in the spring. This characteristic inspired their common name since the trees are “bald” for at least part of the year. The species is long-lived and its wood is rot resistant. Recently, cypress logs dating back 25,000 to 50,000 years have been uncovered from sand quarries along the Pee–Dee River.

Visiting the Beilder forest is easy, requiring only the ability to traverse a level, 1.75 mile-long boardwalk. Walking into the forest, I could immediately see this was a special place.

black water swamp in winter with reflections of trees in waterBald cypress swamps experience seasonal flooding, and when I visited in mid December the forest was covered in a blanket of tea-colored water stained brown by tannins. The day was relatively warm and temperatures reached above 60˚ F. A few turtles and snakes took the opportunity to climb out of the water and sun themselves on fallen logs. My attention, however, was consistently drawn to the canopy and the craggy tops of centuries- and millennium-old bald cypress trees.

silhouette of large bald cypress treeBald cypress is one of the longest-lived trees in North America and the longest-lived tree in the eastern U.S. The oldest known tree at Beilder is nearly 1,600 years old. Along the boardwalk, you can find a 1,000-year giant, which outwardly looks healthy enough to stand another thousand years. (I asked the Audubon staff if I could see the 1,600 year-old tree and to my delight it could be found along the boardwalk. But, I won’t disclose its exact location since the staff would like to avoid making it a target for vandals.)

silhouette of large bald cypress tree

A thousand year-old giant in Francis Beilder Forest. This tree grows adjacent to the boardwalk and is identified by a sign.

At Beilder, many trees are massively trunked, resembling the silhouette of giant sequoia. Above their basal swell, they barely seem to taper until their branches splay outward in the canopy.

silhouette of large bald cypress tree; tree is surrounded by a boardwalkWhen you live to be over 1,000 years old you’re bound to acquire a scar or two. Reaching over 100 feet high, each bald cypress carries a legacy of the battles with insects, fire, and severe weather like thunderstorms, tornados, and hurricanes.

crown of large bald cypress with broken branch

Some time ago, a large branch broke off of this tree, perhaps allowing carpenter ants an easy means of entry. Larger holes in the same branch are the work of large woodpeckers like pileated woodpeckers. One hundred and fifty years ago, ivory-billed woodpeckers would’ve inhabited this place too. Could some of these woodpecker holes be from this extinct bird?

top of trunk of hollow bald cypress tree

The charcoaled interior of this large bald cypress preserves a moment in time when it was struck by lightning and burned.

Collectively and individually, these trees tell a fascinating story, if we are willing to listen. Maybe the most poignant of those, from my perspective, is loss.

I marveled at the trees at Francis Beidler, but I marveled at a fragment. Their longevity and physical proportions might only be remarkable because we’ve eradicated nearly all other bald cypress of the same size and age. Francis Beidler Forest is one of the few places where old-growth bald cypress trees still exist. According to one estimate, over 42 million acres of bald cypress forests once covered the southeastern United States, an area nearly the size of Missouri. Now, only 10,000 acres remain, equivalent to .02% of the original bald cypress forest! The rest was logged for lumber, furniture, and shingles with no forethought for future generations who may find great value (monetary or otherwise) in healthy ecosystems or for the species who depended on this habitat.

Through uncontrolled hunting and the loss of old-growth forests like bald cypress swamps, we drove the Carolina parakeet and ivory-billed woodpecker to extinction. Knowing what we consumed in the past, understanding that we continue to cause extinctions and change the climate today, can we ethically expand our footprint on Earth? How much extinction does it take before we say enough is enough?

The trees at Beilder felt the pounding of the ivory-bill and heard the calls of parakeets. Perhaps they were even enveloped by passenger pigeons, a species once so abundant in North America that their flocks extended for miles and blackened the skies. The air in this forest used to ring with the echoes of these birds. When we lose forests, we lose much more than trees.

 

Restoring Grizzlies is not a Threat to Wilderness

Wilderness Watch, a non-profit advocacy and watchdog group for the National Wilderness Preservation System, opposes active restoration of grizzly bears in the North Cascades ecosystem. While their strict adherence to wilderness values is laudable, in this case it could lead to the extirpation of grizzlies from the ecosystem. Arbitrary wilderness values are not more important than the restoration of grizzlies.

Wilderness, as defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act, is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Importantly, the Wilderness Act states wilderness areas also preserve “wilderness character,” a set of values that link wilderness conditions with legislative intent. Federal land management agencies must manage wilderness so it maintains all aspects of wilderness character. Wilderness must remain untrammeled, natural, undeveloped, provide opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation, and protect other features of value.

Bare mountain peak with lake below

Green view lake sits below Goode Mountain in the Stephen Mather Wilderness, North Cascades National Park.

Any ecosystem manipulation in designated wilderness will affect some of these values, especially during the effort to restore grizzlies. Specifically, the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan will temporarily trammel the land by manipulating a species’ population. Additionally, helicopters flights can impact opportunities for solitude, and tracking collars on bears will affect the wilderness’s naturalness and undeveloped characteristics. For these reasons, Wilderness Watch advocates for a natural recovery alternative, which would allow bears to return on their own and offer the greatest adherence to wilderness character and values. They state:

  • Information is lacking on the status of grizzlies on the Canadian side of the border where two moderately sized provincial parks provide some protection for the bears.
  • For dubious reasons, a natural recovery alternative was rejected for further analysis. Instead, the DEIS considers only heavy-handed management alternatives.
  • The extensive use of helicopters would continue indefinitely for monitoring bear movement and numbers. This heavy-handed management would be detrimental to Wilderness and bears alike.
  • None of the current action alternatives, involving translocating bears, are compatible with Wilderness.

However, some of these assertions are incorrect. There is a “natural recovery alternative” in the draft restoration plan. It’s the no action alternative, or Alternative A. This alternative may need further revision to achieve Wilderness Watch’s goals, but it hasn’t been rejected for further analysis or excluded. Perhaps most importantly, if Wilderness Watch’s position is adopted by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it will likely lead to the extirpation of grizzlies in the ecosystem, where only six bears are thought to remain (Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, p. 90).

Grizzly bears are not doing well in southwestern British Columbia. Adjacent populations to the north are only slightly more numerous. Fewer than 30 grizzlies are estimated to live within the Stein-Nahatlatch and Garibaldi-Pitt areas (interactive map of grizzly populations in British Columbia). Under current conditions, no grizzly population in Canada or the U.S. is likely to expand and occupy the North Cascades region (Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, p. 88-89).

Alt Text: Map of Grizzly Bear Population Status in British Columbia (Red=Extirpated, Yellow=Threatened, Green=Viable)

This map shows the current status of grizzly bear populations in British Columbia. Many areas of B.C. have healthy populations of grizzlies, but every population in southwest B.C. is either threatened or already extirpated. Red Circle is approximate area of North Cascades ecosystem.

Wilderness Watch is correct when they write, “None of the current action alternatives, involving translocating bears, are compatible with Wilderness.” In this case, helicopters and intensive management of translocated bears would impact the area’s wilderness character. The impacts may be unavoidable, but under certain conditions wilderness character can be manipulated for safety and management needs (i.e. invasive species removal). The NPS and USFWS would need to diligently consider ways to minimize impacts.

Anyone who is willing to share the ecosystem with bears and also wishes to preserve wilderness character should support Alternative B in the draft restoration plan, which proposes to introduce a small number of grizzly bears into the area, monitor them, then reevaluate whether more bears should be introduced. This offers the best compromise, in my opinion, between the no action (natural restoration) alternative and other options (alternatives C and D) that are much more heavy handed.

Wilderness and wilderness character is worth protecting. Groups like Wilderness Watch should continue to be a watchdog for designated wilderness. Yet, the effort to restore a healthy, self-sustaining population of grizzlies in North Cascades transcends arbitrary wilderness values. Bears need wild areas more than people.

I wish we could step back and let grizzly bears restore themselves. Nothing I’ve read indicates that’s a successful solution though. The North Cascades ecosystem was identified as one of six recovery zones for grizzlies in the Lower 48 partly because of its large, natural, and healthy wilderness areas. Bears can survive here, if we give them a push. I believe we can sacrifice a bit of our cultural need for an idealized, untrammeled wilderness to benefit grizzly bears. If we don’t act, if we allow grizzlies to disappear, then that would be one of the greatest trammels of all.

You can submit comments on the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan through April 28, 2017.

Related Posts:
Stehekin Grizzly Bear Meeting
Go Further So Bears Can Go Farther

Alaska vs the Feds: Predator Control on National Wildlife Refuges

Should Alaska be permitted to implement predator control measures on Alaska’s national wildlife refuges? The feds say no, but a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.J.R. 69 and its equivalent in the Senate, S.J. 18, will rescind U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations that prohibit predator control methods on national wildlife refuges in Alaska, specifically:

  • Taking black or brown bear cubs or sows with cubs (exception allowed for resident hunters to take black bear cubs or sows with cubs under customary and traditional use activities at a den site October 15-April 30 in specific game management units in accordance with State law);
  • Taking brown bears over bait;
  • Taking of bears using traps or snares;
  • Taking wolves and coyotes during the denning season (May 1-August 9); and
  • Taking bears from an aircraft or on the same day as air travel has occurred. The take of wolves or wolverines from an aircraft or on the same day as air travel has occurred is already prohibited under current refuge regulations.

Alaska and the Alaska congressional delegation contend the state should continue to manage wildlife harvest on refuges. Rep. Don Young, H.J.R. 69’s sponsor, argues that the USFWS regs are an unacceptable federal overreach. He believes wildlife management should be left to the state of Alaska. (H.J.R. 69 already passed the House of Representatives by a 225 to 193 vote.)

However, national wildlife refuge managers in Alaska determined the “hunting” practices adopted by the state of Alaska are predator control, which is an unnecessary and prohibited manipulation of ecosystem processes on national wildlife refuges. The state has said the Feds can’t prove it’s predator control, but the hunting methods and the species they target are designed to reduce predator populations. By allowing those methods, the Alaska Board of Game forced the USFWS’s hand, as well as that of the National Park Service who manages national preserves in Alaska.

Compared to the USFWS regs, the NPS has very similar regulations on the books for hunting in national preserves. The NPS regs will not be affected by H.J.R. 69 or S.J. 18, although Alaska has sued the NPS over it. Here’s why the NPS justifies the prohibition:

“In the last several years, the State of Alaska has allowed an increasing number of liberalized methods of hunting and trapping wildlife and extended seasons to increase opportunities to harvest predator species.

“These practices are not consistent with the NPS’s implementation of ANILCA’s authorization of sport hunting and trapping in national preserves. To the extent such practices are intended or reasonably likely to manipulate wildlife populations for harvest purposes or alter natural wildlife behaviors, they are not consistent with NPS management policies implementing the NPS Organic Act or the sections of ANILCA that established the national preserves in Alaska. Additional liberalizations by the State that are inconsistent with NPS management directives, policies, and federal law are anticipated in the future.”

Here’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s justification in a nutshell:

“The different purposes of State and Federal laws and the increased focus on predator control by the State have resulted in the need for FWS to deviate, in certain respects, from applying State regulations within refuges. This is because predator-prey interactions represent a dynamic and foundational ecological process in Alaska’s arctic and subarctic ecosystems, and are a major driver of ecosystem function. State regulations allowing activities on refuges in Alaska that are inconsistent with the conservation of fish and wildlife populations and their habitats in their natural diversity, or the maintenance of biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health, are in direct conflict with our legal mandates for administering refuges in Alaska under ANILCA, the Improvement Act, and the Wilderness Act, as well as with applicable agency policies (601 FW 3, 610 FW 2, and 605 FW 2).

“In managing for natural diversity, FWS conserves, protects, and manages all fish and wildlife populations within a particular wildlife refuge system unit in the natural `mix,’ not to emphasize management activities favoring one species to the detriment of another. FWS assures that habitat diversity is maintained through natural means on refuges in Alaska, avoiding artificial developments and habitat manipulation programs, whenever possible. FWS fully recognizes and considers that rural residents use, and are often dependent on, refuge resources for subsistence purposes, and FWS manages for this use consistent with the conservation of species and habitats in their natural diversity.”

As Don Young contends, this is a state versus federal rights issue. However, he doesn’t attempt to disprove the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services justifications for the regulations (which, again, prohibit the state’s predator control practices on national wildlife refuges). The congressman’s efforts through H.J.R 69 is an attempt to limit the authority of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. (Alaska’s senators, Sullivan and Murkowski, sponsor S.J. 18, the Senate equivalent of H.J.R. 69.)

This bill isn’t just about killing bear cubs and wolf pups, although that’s how a lot of click bait portrays the issue.

It’s really about whether predator control should occur in national wildlife refuges. Its about states’ rights versus federal authority. Personally, I believe the prohibited hunting methods are nothing more than thinly veiled predator control, which should not be allowed on land managed in the national interest.

If you’re concerned about predator control on wildlife refuges in Alaska, then you should oppose these bills.  The House resolution has already passed, so any efforts should be focused on the Senate version, S.J. 18.

Edit: The Senate passed H.J.R 69 by a 52-47 vote. The President is expected to sign it into law.

Go Further So Bears Can Go Farther

Plans are afoot to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades ecosystem. The draft plan includes four alternatives. Only one (Alternative A) takes no action. The others, through various strategies, all aim to restore a self sustaining population of bears in the ecosystem, an effort I support. Grizzlies should be in North Cascades, but that can’t be the end game. We need to go further to allow wildlife to go father.

The story of the grizzly bear is well documented. Like bison, grizzlies suffered immensely from westward American expansion. Once found from California to Missouri and Alaska to Mexico, this iconic species is now restricted to Alaska, western Canada, and a few isolated pockets in the Lower 48.

The grizzly bear was listed as a threatened species in the Lower 48 under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. At the time, grizzlies were known or thought to exist in only four states. Since then, its range has not expanded substantially, but the most famous grizzly population in Yellowstone National Park has grown to over 700 individuals, at or near the Yellowstone ecosystem’s carrying capacity, and the Northern Continental Divide population, centered around Glacier National Park in Montana, is also doing well with over 1000 animals.

Elsewhere in the Lower 48, grizzly bears remain rare or non-existent. The Selkirk ecosystem, in northwest Washington and adjacent British Columbia, harbors only 80 grizzly bears. The Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem in northwest Montana and northern Idaho has about 50. No grizzly bears are known from the Bitterroot ecosystem in central Idaho, nor in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado where they were rumored to exist. They are extinct in Mexico.

Grizzly bears aren’t spreading far and wide, despite a high level of protection since the 1970s. They are slow to reproduce, need isolation from people, and roam over large areas of undeveloped habitat. They maintain a foothold only where they weren’t extirpated and where humans tolerate them.

In 1982, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the North Cascades ecosystem as a recovery zone for grizzlies in the Lower 48. The ecosystem includes over six million acres stretching from extreme southwest British Columbia to Cle Elum and the Interstate 90 corridor in Washington. The core of the ecosystem is a 2.6 million acre federal wilderness complex. The wilderness areas encompass most of North Cascades National Park, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and a significant portion of the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie national forests.

Map of North Cascades area showing public land and land management agencies. Black line outlines boundary of the ecosystem.

The North Cascades Ecosystem in Washington. (From the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, pg. 2).

A handful of grizzly bears persist in the British Columbia portion of the ecosystem, but none are known in Washington. The last verified sighting of a grizzly bear in this area of Washington was in 1996. The last time a female with cubs was seen was 1991. (A possible sighting in 2010 was likely a black bear.) According to the restoration plan, it is unlikely that the North Cascades area contains a viable grizzly bear population and grizzlies are at risk of local extinction in this ecosystem if no measures are taken to introduce more bears.

Mountain valley scene. Steep walled mountains with red-berried shrub in foreground.

Many places in the North Cascades ecosystem, like the upper Stehekin River valley, provide excellent habitat for grizzly bears.

I believe it is worthwhile to make an effort to prevent the extirpation of grizzlies in the North Cascades ecosystem, even though these bears aren’t keystones like salmon or sea otters. The bears may not create substantial changes in the area, but they will have many effects. Grizzly bears are an umbrella species. If we protect habitat for and maintain healthy populations of grizzly bears, then that large core of habitat is protected for the vast majority of other species in the area.

For grizzly bears and other large carnivores, like wolves, to regain their full potential as umbrella species, we need to do more than tolerate their existence in a few isolated areas. This is where the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan falls short. The plan aims to restore a population, not create connectivity with others. For grizzly bears to remain truly viable and self sustaining, their populations need connectivity.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is probably the most famous example of this concept. It’s an effort to protect a corridor of habitat from Yellowstone National Park north through the Rocky Mountains into the Yukon Territory. It would not only provide habitat for bears, but wolves, wolverines, elk, deer, moose, and many, many other animals and plants. It would provide animals with habitat corridors so they could migrate and shift their range as conditions dictate.

Perhaps we need to provide animals and plants on the west coast of North America with a similar corridor, one stretching from Alaska and British Columbia to Baja California. The current hodgepodge of national forests and parks along the Cascade Mountains and Sierra Nevada could provide the core. To achieve continuity between ecosystems, it would only be a (not so) simple matter of connecting those pieces together in ways to adhere habitats. (I also dream about similar conservation corridors across North America—the Appalachians, a bison commons on the high plains, and Florida among others.)

I’m not sure I will include a vision for the British Columbia to Baja corridor in any comments I might submit on the draft grizzly bear restoration plan. I already know the response: “This is outside the scope of the restoration plan.” The response is completely legit. The lead agencies for the restoration plan, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have no authority to create such an entity. It’ll need legislation, funding, time, and the strong support of citizens and non-government organizations to be successful.

When we have an opportunity to rewild a landscape, we should. When we have an opportunity to give a little back to wildlife, we should. But, we can do better than simply restoring grizzlies to the North Cascades. Earth’s systems don’t work in isolation. We know enough now to build resiliency into our efforts to protect wild lands and wildlife. We can provide grizzly bears with the habitat to roam into Oregon, California, and other parts of the West again. We can give the ecosystems more room to be resilient. Our goal shouldn’t be to simply have bears in a few isolated areas, but provide continuous habitat so bears can survive future changes without us. That’s how we know we’ve gone far enough.

You can submit comments on the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan through April 28, 2017.