HARRISBURG, Pa., Aug. 30 /PRNewswire/ -- The following article was written by Joe Kosack, Wildlife Conservation Education Specialist Pennsylvania Game Commission: The Pennsylvania Game Commission has teamed with Indiana University of Pennsylvania in a research project that aims to provide wildlife managers with a better understanding of fishers, a rapidly expanding furbearer resource in the Commonwealth. Fishers - members of the weasel family, which includes skunks and wolverines - are back in a big way in Pennsylvania's Allegheny and Appalachian mountains. Their return is a product of both in-state reintroductions and range expansion by fishers in West Virginia and possibly from New York. This denizen of the North most likely returned from extirpation in Pennsylvania initially by coming from the south. Its foothold in Pennsylvania was further strengthened when 190 fishers were released in the mid- and late-1990s in three areas across the state's northern tier in reintroductions involving the Game Commission, Pennsylvania State University and Frostburg State University. "We believe Pennsylvania is home currently to thousands of fishers," noted Dr. Matt Lovallo, Game Commission furbearer biologist. "But prior to their natural expansion from neighboring states into Pennsylvania and our reintroductions, fishers were non-existent. Their comeback is one of the most exciting stories in furbearer conservation currently in the Mid-Atlantic States." Fishers were no longer a member of Pennsylvania's wildlife community by 1900. They are lanky, mink-like furbearers that typically range in weight from five to 14 pounds, with males being larger than females. Fishers are as at home in the forest canopy as they are on the forest floor. Their diet includes songbirds, small mammals, porcupines and carrion, and occasionally includes fruity side dishes. Ironically, fishers rarely pursue fish. Lovallo has teamed with Dr. Jeff Larkin and graduate student Christopher Kirkhoff of Pottstown, both of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and wildlife technicians Molly Giles of Johnstown, and James C. Kauffman, of Leesport, to conduct this major field study on State Game Lands 26 in Bedford, Blair and Cambria counties, and nearby sections of Gallitzin State Forest and Blue Knob State Park. This study will delineate the home range of fishers via radio-telemetry and provide the means to generate estimates of fisher population size, density and distribution. The fieldwork includes collecting hair samples to extract DNA for genetic profiling and to establish a Pennsylvania fisher DNA database. The research effort also will include examining the stomach contents and reproductive tracts of road-killed fishers to learn more about this growing population. "The occurrence of fishers in Pennsylvania is the result of fishers expanding their range from states bordering ours and fishers being reintroduced here and in West Virginia," Lovallo said. "It appears our study area was colonized by the progeny of 23 New Hampshire fishers that were re- introduced in West Virginia in 1969. Most other areas of Pennsylvania inhabited by fishers were repopulated by fishers that were released instate during the '90s." In West Virginia, the fisher population started to take off in the mid 1990s, based upon harvest reports, according to Rich Rogers, furbearer program coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. "Over the last few years, we've had an almost unbelievable jump in the number of fishers being taken," Rogers said. "Our harvest has increased from 54 in 2003, to 72 in 2004, to 102 in 2005, without a noticeable increase in trapper numbers. Hopefully, the reported kills are all animals that were actually taken in West Virginia. "With the exception of a couple of counties, it doesn't appear that fisher densities are increasing too dramatically, but the population is expanding father east and west. Right now, we have more fishers in more areas than ever in West Virginia." West Virginia's fisher population has expanded its range into western Maryland and northern Virginia, but they appear to have pushed deeper and farther into the north in Pennsylvania. And there's a simple explanation for that. "Pennsylvania just has more and better habitat for fishers," Rogers noted. From their reintroduction site in West Virginia, a nucleus of 23 New Hampshire fishers have spurred the return of fishers in up to four Mid- Atlantic states, which speaks volumes about this furbearer's resiliency, especially when you consider West Virginia began harvesting fishers six years after they were reintroduced. But the fisher has a track record of being an almost can't-miss ringer when reintroduced. "There has never been a failed fisher reintroduction in the eastern United States that I'm aware of," Lovallo said. Pennsylvania's fisher population spike seems to be paralleling West Virginia's, based upon the number of reported fisher observations the Game Commission has been receiving. In 2002, 106 fisher reports were received; 206 in 2003; 303 in 2004; and 341 (including 49 captured and released by trappers using foothold traps) in 2005. In fact, hunters have reported observing fishers in 43 of the state's 67 counties. Defining the size and range of Pennsylvania's elusive fisher population are long-term management goals Lovallo and Larkin both believe will become possible based on the findings of this fieldwork. The project, only weeks old, has already paid dividends by documenting the fishers' somewhat uncharacteristic use of deciduous stands and relatively new forestland, and an apparent propensity to live at higher densities in these areas. The three-year research project, which carries a $157,555 price-tag, is financed largely by the State Wildlife Grant Program (SWG). Created by the U.S. Congress in 2001, SWG is designed to finance the conservation and/or recovery of species of greatest conservation need at the state level before they decline to the point of becoming federally endangered and in need of expensive "emergency room care" through the Endangered Species Act. More than 1,000 animals and plants currently are listed as federally threatened or endangered species. In Pennsylvania, the fisher is listed as a species of conservation concern. Fieldwork for the study started in early August with Game Commission and IUP personnel setting and running a trapline of 180 cage traps. Fishers, which are winding down their summer mating season, are being attracted to trap-sets with commercial lures made from furbearer musk and glands and spices or oils that arouse curiosity. "The lure has a strong musky skunk smell to it, and it's not attracting bears, which we were concerned about, because they'll come in and throw traps around," explained Larkin. "We build what is called a 'cubby,' and fishers are forced to enter the trap to investigate the lure. So far the lure, although it smells pretty bad, has been incredibly effective and pretty specific for fishers." The goal of the trapping phase is to collect DNA samples extracted from hair follicles and place radio collars on 20 adult fishers, preferably females. Collars placed on fishers are permanent, and will transmit a radio signal for about a year and a half. To date, 18 fishers have been collared. Larkin said he expected the study's trapping phase to conclude in late August. Then fieldwork will focus almost entirely on using telemetry to track the collared animals and establish home ranges for each fisher. "Once we establish an average adult female home-range, we're going to place hair-snares in randomly selected locations within the home-range to see how long it takes us to snare a hair sample from a fisher we know is there," Larkin explained. "What we're attempting to develop is a fisher trapping survey technique that will provide a 90 percent probability of detection for fishers. This mark-and-recapture approach will determine the minimum number of days that a hair-snare needs to be placed in a habitat grid, so that if we don't get hair, we are 90 percent confident that no fisher is in that grid. The results will then be used to develop a standardized fisher survey technique for other areas of the state." Larkin pointed out that this fisher project has unique standing. "This is likely the furthest south that anyone has ever studied fisher to the extent that we are," Larkin said. "And we're actually studying fishers in a new habitat - deciduous forest. A lot of work has been done in coniferous forests and mixed hardwood forests. Our forests are more productive than those where other fisher studies have been done. We might see some behaviors that vary greatly from textbook profiles." The more than two dozen fishers caught to date in the study have been taken in a relatively small geographic area. For animals that are considered highly territorial and free-ranging, that was kind of eye-opening. "I'm going to be surprised if these animals don't show that there is a lot of overlap in their home ranges," Lovallo said. "It's probably related to the 15 years or so that this fisher population has been established, and that the habitat in this area appears to be exceptionally productive. Telemetry will provide answers to these important questions." Many sectors of this large forested study area have been and continue to be intensively managed by the Game Commission and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Lovallo and Larkin both suspect that those alterations have created utopian fisher habitat. "There's a lot of young forest here and fishers are using it," Lovallo said. "The long-held beliefs that fishers are shy wilderness carnivores that hound porcupines and prefer to live in old-growth forest with significant coniferous components likely will not be substantiated in this study. But fishers apparently will shine as highly-adaptable carnivores that can live in the shadow of civilization so long as there are forests for them to inhabit." Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officer (WCO) Shawn Harshaw, who serves a district in southern Cambria County that is in the study area, said people report seeing fishers in the county regularly. "Archery hunters see them more than other hunters, so do people who walk dogs on state game lands," said Harshaw, who also is assisting with the study. "Interestingly, many of the fishers that I have dealt with don't seem to be too bothered by people." Harshaw said his first official fisher complaint was in 1998. It involved a fisher killing, of all things, fish. About 50 coy were removed from a pond, and his investigation revealed a fisher and barred owls were responsible for the theft. When this research is completed, the Game Commission expects to have a blueprint to build a management tool to estimate minimum fisher population size, something the agency has for few other furbearers. "We'll be able to track our fisher population," Lovallo pointed out. "That's going to drive our management decisions, and open the door to possibly harvesting fishers, which occurs in three states that border us -- New York, West Virginia and Maryland. "Pennsylvanians have expressed considerable interest in trapping fishers. In New York, they're harvesting several thousand fishers annually in the Adirondacks and Catskills. The only way to decide if Pennsylvania is poised to offer a fisher season, is to determine - at least minimally - how many fishers there are in Pennsylvania. Time and this study will help us to begin to understand whether we can have a season, too." For more natural history background on fishers, visit the Game Commission's website (http://www.pgc.state.pa.us); click on "Wildlife," then "Wildlife Notes" in the right column, and select "Fishers." Created in 1895 as an independent state agency, the Game Commission is responsible for conserving and managing all wild birds and mammals in the Commonwealth, establishing hunting seasons and bag limits, enforcing hunting and trapping laws, and managing habitat on the 1.4 million acres of State Game Lands it has purchased over the years with hunting and furtaking license dollars to safeguard wildlife habitat. The agency also conducts numerous wildlife conservation programs for schools, civic organizations and sportsmen's clubs. The Game Commission does not receive any general state taxpayer dollars for its annual operating budget. The agency is funded by license sales revenues; the state's share of the federal Pittman-Robertson program, which is an excise tax collected through the sale of sporting arms and ammunition; and monies from the sale of oil, gas, coal, timber and minerals derived from State Game Lands. NOTE: Photos to accompany the following article are available from the Game Commission's website (http://www.pgc.state.pa.us) by clicking on "Release #102-06."
SOURCE Pennsylvania Game Commission