Rare weasel species makes come­back in Wash­ing­ton Species has been miss­ing for seven decades

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

MOUNT RAINIER NA­TIONAL PARK:

The elu­sive weasel-like mam­mal poked its head out of the wooden crate, glanced around and quickly darted into the thick for­est of Mount Rainier Na­tional Park - re­turn­ing to a land­scape where it had been miss­ing for seven decades. One by one, 10 Pa­cific fish­ers that had been trapped in Bri­tish Columbia were set free at the park south of Seat­tle as part of a mul­ti­year ef­fort to rein­tro­duce the na­tive species to its his­tor­i­cal range.

A large crowd gath­ered Fri­day to her­ald the re­turn of the dark-brown mem­ber of the weasel family with its lush fur and bushy tail. They cheered, clapped and hooted, and First Na­tions and Amer­i­can In­dian tribal mem­bers sang and drummed, as each crate door was lifted and a fisher streaked out of sight across the snowy ground.

“We’re cor­rect­ing some­thing that we mis­man­aged a long time ago be­fore we knew enough to man­age wildlife pop­u­la­tions,” said Jef­frey Lewis, a bi­ol­o­gist with the Wash­ing­ton Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife. “Now we can fix that be­cause we know how to. We know we’ve got a lot of habi­tat here. All we were miss­ing were the fish­ers.”

Fish­ers his­tor­i­cally were found through­out much of the forested ar­eas of the West Coast. But they de­clined in numbers due to trap­ping in the 1800s and early 1900s, and the loss of for­est habi­tats. By the mid-1900s they were elim­i­nated from Wash­ing­ton State. The soli­tary an­i­mal, which hunts snow­shoe hares, ro­dents and small mam­mals, were listed as state en­dan­gered species in 1998. They’re one of the few preda­tors of por­cu­pines and are found only in North Amer­ica.

While com­mon in the North­east and Mid­west, they’re rare in the North­west. Pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates of West Coast fish­ers to­day are any­where from a cou­ple hun­dred to a few thou­sand, mostly in south­ern Ore­gon and North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. More re­cently, West Coast fish­ers have faced threats from il­le­gal pes­ti­cide use by mar­i­juana grow­ers and other threats. But they’re slowly mak­ing a come­back in Wash­ing­ton through rein­tro­duc­tion ef­forts in­volv­ing WDFW, Con­ser­va­tion North­west, the Na­tional Park Ser­vice and other part­ners.

“These an­i­mals were here be­fore us and so it’s our duty to take care of them,” Han­ford McCloud, a Nisqually In­dian Tribe coun­cil mem­ber, said dur­ing a cer­e­mony be­fore the fish­ers were re­leased on park land des­ig­nated for the tribe’s use. Sev­eral First Na­tions peo­ple trav­eled with the fish­ers, some that were cap­tured First Na­tions land in Bri­tish Columbia. The first fish­ers, about 90 in all, were rein­tro­duced in Wash­ing­ton state in Olympic Na­tional Park start­ing in 2008. Those an­i­mals are re­pro­duc­ing and ex­pand­ing its geo­graphic range.

Re­lo­cat­ing fish­ers

The sec­ond phase of the pro­ject in­volves re­lo­cat­ing fish­ers from Bri­tish Columbia into the south­west Cas­cade Moun­tains and later into the North Cas­cades. The goal is to rein­tro­duce 80 fish­ers to each region. “We feel like we’re mak­ing head­way and we’re get­ting good pos­i­tive re­sults. It’s too early to say that we’re es­tab­lish­ing a self­sus­tain­ing pop­u­la­tion but it sure is look­ing pos­i­tive,” said Lewis.

The re­cov­ery ef­forts, how­ever, comes as con­ser­va­tion groups have sued the US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, al­leg­ing the fed­eral agency failed to con­sider the best sci­en­tific ev­i­dence when it de­cided not to pro­vide the fisher pro­tec­tions un­der the En­dan­gered Species Act. Fish and Wildlife had pro­posed listing the for­est-dwelling mam­mal as threat­ened in 2014 over con­cerns about log­ging prac­tices, il­le­gal pes­ti­cide use by mar­i­juana grow­ers and other threats.

In April, the agency ac­knowl­edged the crea­tures no longer oc­cur in their his­tor­i­cal ranges in Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon and Cal­i­for­nia but con­cluded they were not in dan­ger of ex­tinc­tion. The agency said the best avail­able science showed cur­rent threats aren’t caus­ing sig­nif­i­cant de­clines in West Coast pop­u­la­tions. It also cited con­ser­va­tion mea­sures such as rein­tro­duc­tion ef­forts in Wash­ing­ton.

“We’re heart­ened by rein­tro­duc­tion ef­forts, but they alone are not go­ing to be suf­fi­cient to save the fish­ers,” said Tom Wheeler, En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, one of the groups that sued. He said the an­i­mals need greater fed­eral pro­tec­tions be­cause they still face on­go­ing threats. Tara Ch­est­nut, a Mount Rainier park ecol­o­gist, said the re­turn of fish­ers to the Cas­cade Moun­tains will re­store bio­di­ver­sity to the ecosys­tem. “But there’s also cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance,” she said. “Fish­ers are part of our natural his­tory and our natural her­itage. There are also spir­i­tual as­pects of their re­turn that are re­ally im­por­tant.” — AP

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