PORTLAND -- New threats and a legal settlement prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal today to list West Coast populations of fisher as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The fisher, an elusive cousin of the mink, otter and weasel, was first driven into scarcity by fur trappers and loggers in the late 1800s. Today it's getting poisoned by marijuana growers.
Once prevalent throughout the West Coast, natural fisher populations have been relegated to pockets of Northern California and far Southern Oregon, deep in public forests where they've found themselves sharing land with illegal marijuana farms. Those farms use heavy amounts of rat poison and do so in ways not intended by the label, federal wildlife officials said.
More than 80 percent of animals tested showed levels of rodenticide, according to federal wildlife officials who say pot farms are the likely source. The number of deaths caused by the poison is unknown.
“It is an illegal activity so it’s not like we know a lot yet," said Paul Henson, state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon. "But we know it’s fairly widespread within the range of the fisher, because that’s also where a certain amount of the illegal cultivation occurring on public lands.”
The fisher is a small, brown mammal resembling a cross between an otter and a house cat. It's one of the only creatures that actively hunts porcupine and prefers to make its den in old, gnarled trees often found in old-growth forests.
Henson said fisher also have been known to do well in managed forests, and said the West Coast doesn't have a lack of fisher habitat, just a lack of fishers.
Environmental groups have been pushing for the animal's protection for nearly 25 years, and some of them see it differently. Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the fisher is indicative of old growth forest habitat.
Greenwald thinks that much like salmon, the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet before it, an endangered listing for the fisher could force the creature into the center of Oregon's timber politics. Greenwald indicated the fisher would become an issue for his and other environmental groups in the debate over proposals to increase logging on Northwest forests. That includes the separate bills introduced by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio proposing new management for Oregon’s O&C Lands — a checkerboard of parcels in Western Oregon named for the Oregon & California Railroad that once owned them.
The fisher's listing comes as part of a 2011 legal settlement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity, in which the agency agreed to speed up its decisions on 757 species awaiting a determination regarding the endangered list.