Pennsylvania Game Commission: Collaring Fishers

Aug 30, 2006, 01:00 ET from Pennsylvania Game Commission

    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
     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
     "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 (; 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 ( by clicking on
 "Release #102-06."

SOURCE Pennsylvania Game Commission