The Future of the Pacific Fisher: On Our Watch

Pacific fisher artwork by Megan Connelly

Pacific fisher artwork by Megan Connelly

By Shauna Potocky

January 5, 2015 will be a pivotal day in the future of the Pacific fisher along the West Coast of the United States. An extraordinary predator of the mixed conifer forest, the Pacific fisher was once abundant throughout the forested areas of the United States and Canada. Fisher populations rapidly declined due to hunting and timber extraction in the mid 1800 through the early 1900s. Today, the fisher is affected by development, timber extraction, fires, toxins and forest fragmentation—but the fisher’s story does not end here. In fact, there is a chance to write an entirely new chapter for the West Coast populations of fisher, focused on its future.

Previous attempts to protect the Pacific fisher under the Endangered Species Act have not resulted in it being listed, but soon that track record may change. Increased pressures on the West Coast population of fishers, along with consistent monitoring of the population by a wide range of professionals and stakeholders, have culminated in what may be an important review and opportunity to list the fisher as threatened via the Endangered Species Act. This may afford a new level of protection and suite of management strategies to help preserve the existing population and potentially assist in its eventual recovery.

USFWS Pacific South West Region photo via Creative Commons

USFWS Pacific South West Region photo via Creative Commons

The natural history of the fisher has made it uniquely susceptible to various human pressures. A member of the weasel family, also known as mustelids, the fisher is essentially the middle cousin between the smaller American martin and the larger wolverine. Yet, what might help one understand the appeal of the fisher, is that it is also related to the sea otter—and shares many characteristics of its remarkable fur. This fur is what made the fisher a valuable commodity during the settlement of the United States and the fur trapping and trade of the time. That, along with its dependence on forested areas as habitat, put it in direct competition with a young country looking to extract lumber and build its future infrastructure.

The result was that the fisher declined in many areas of the United States and went extinct along parts of its range on the East Coast. Reintroductions have helped to bring the fisher back to its historic range. Yet, today, there is a population of fishers still eking out a living on the West Coast—primarily in Washington, Oregon and California. Perhaps the most remarkable of these populations is the geographically isolated population of fisher in the Southern Sierra Nevada of California. Here, a small population of just several hundred individuals is hanging on—though, they are facing big odds. That said, there are many people working to explore the issues, find solutions and potentially turn the odds in the fisher’s favor.

Research groups are working to better understand the needs and critical habitat of the fisher, this work enables them to collaborate with and inform communities, businesses, agencies and other research groups on adaptive management strategies that can best support the fisher in its remaining habitat. Essentially, this work can help in effectively preserving or restoring habitat and potentially bridge or solve the fragmentation gap—thus reuniting the fisher within its historic range.

The Pacific fisher preys on small mammals such as mice, squirrels and is famously known for predating porcupines. It is generally found in close proximity to a water source and prefers a closed canopy forest. Perhaps most importantly, is its dependence on medium to large trees as an essential part of its habitat. Specifically, the female fisher utilizes cavities in trees as dens for resting, giving birth and raising her young, known as kits. Smaller trees generally do not provide den space—thus, the fisher is associated with forests that have larger diameter trees.

Photo courtesy of Mark Jordon

Photo courtesy of Mark Jordan

The fisher is well adapted for climbing trees; it has large paws that feature impressive claws, which aid in climbing. The fisher is also a skilled predator—it may look remarkably cute, but don’t be fooled, it is an effective hunter. Unfortunately, as an ironic twist of predator fate, the fisher has become the center piece of an emerging issue in forests and public lands, especially in California.

Illegal marijuana farms are permeating public lands throughout areas of the Southern Sierra Nevada. In these areas national forests, national parks and other remote forested landscapes have fallen prey to marijuana growers who have no regard for public lands, the forest, water resources and the wildlife that reside there.

Entire areas of forest may be cut or thinned in order to cultivate marijuana. Water is plumbed from streams and there is no remorse for killing wildlife—either for illegal hunting or to protect the marijuana crop itself. This second motivation has resulted in heavy poisons being used in forest landscapes in order to kill mice, squirrels and other animals that may jeopardize the crop. These poisons, known as rodenticides, bioaccumulate in the food web, and the fisher has emerged as a major victim.

In a population that is already facing great pressures from land use, resource extraction, vehicle collisions, an increased threat of fire, as well as geographic isolation—there is now an option to do something for the Pacific fisher.

January 5, 2015 is a fast approaching deadline. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is providing the public with an opportunity to weigh in on whether the Pacific fisher should be protected via the Endangered Species Act. Whatever your opinion, don’t sit silent—we are being given the opportunity to speak up and the future of the fisher is on us. Its fate will be determined on our watch.


Wood Storks No Longer Listed as Endangered


Wood Stork. Photograph courtesy of the USFWS.

By Christine Harris

We often hear stories of species teetering on the brink of extinction. Rarely do we hear positive news about the fate of a threatened or endangered species, but the continuing recovery of the wood stork (Mycteria americana) is one of those rare stories.

A large, bald, wading bird standing approximately four feet tall with a wingspan of five feet, the American wood stork population was drastically reduced by habitat loss and fragmentation as many of the Florida wetlands in which it bred and lived were destroyed.  This habitat loss led to a drastic population decrease from 40,000 breeding adults in the 1930s to around 10,000 in the 1970s. Today the population of breeding adults is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000.



Wood Stork Florida habitat. Image courtesy of University of Florida.

The wood stork’s population increase over the past thirty years is partially due to the fact that the species has expanded its range and established breeding colonies in new areas in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.  These new breeding colonies have helped the species to compensate for the loss of some of its historic nesting grounds in Florida. The wood stork has also expanded its wintering grounds to include parts of Mississippi and Alabama.

On June 26, 2014 Secretary of the Interior and former REI CEO Sally Jewell announced that the wood stork is being downgraded from an endangered to a threatened species.  Jewell made the announcement at the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge on the coast of Georgia where an artificial wetland created in the 1980s now harbors 800 breeding adult wood storks.  Restored and artificial wetlands throughout the wood stork’s breeding range have helped contribute to its recovery.



Wood Storks in their habitat. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Although the population has made a significant recovery, not everyone is happy about the decision to change the bird’s status from endangered to threatened.  Florida’s chapter of the National Audubon Society has publicly decried the decision citing the decline of the species in its historic range as cause for concern.  Though the species is now breeding in areas where it didn’t when it was listed thirty years ago, many of the wetlands in which it bred historically have been further destroyed or damaged since it was listed leading to a population decline in some areas of Florida.

Although some consider the status change to be premature, the protection awarded to the species under the Endangered Species Act will be virtually the same as it was when the wood stork was listed as endangered.  The downgrade to “threatened” indicates that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Federal agency that oversees the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, no longer considers the species to be at risk for extinction.  Thirty years ago many believed the wood stork would never see a status downgrade.  When the species was first listed in 1984 wildlife biologists feared the bird would be extinct by 2000.



Brown Pelicans: An Endangered Species Recovery Success Story

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It was a warm, sunny autumn afternoon and I was out for a stroll at my favorite spot on this Earth. October is prime fishing season on the Carolina coast and I wanted to see how much luck folks were having on the Kure Beach pier. As I approached the end of the pier, I spotted three burly fishermen with two day beards, grumbling and grunting in frustration while hanging over the railing. As I got closer, I was able to discern the words, more than a few of which were colorful. The grumbling continued as one of the fishermen hoisted up and over the railing the cause of discontent. A juvenile Brown Pelican was tangled in fishing line. I watched in disbelief as these tough guys took turns trying to loosen the fishing line with a guarded and tentative approach as if taming a lion. I stepped in, secured the bird’s bill with one hand and pulled its body against mine with the other and directed, “Now cut. He’s just a youngster and quite harmless.” When the fishermen were done cutting the line away, I let go. Like any smart bird, the pelican hopped a few steps, took flight and wasted no time getting away from us.

Though I felt sorry for the frightened pelican and annoyed by wimpy grown men, I enjoyed having the brief opportunity to hold such a magnificent avian. The bird’s feathers were well oiled (from natural oils from the preen gland) but not greasy…feeling more rubbery, like an old-fashioned hot water bottle. The bird was strong but surprisingly did not resist much. Even for a juvenile, its bill was nearly as long as my elbow to wrist and its wingspan easily three feet. But the pelican was light, no more than five pounds even though its body mass appeared to be comparable to a twelve to fifteen pound frozen turkey.

Brown pelicans in the surf at Carolina Beach, N.C.  Photo by Maymie Higgins

Brown pelicans in the surf at Carolina Beach, N.C. Photo by Maymie Higgins

Brown pelicans live year-round in estuaries and coastal marine habitats along both the east and west coasts. They breed between Maryland and Venezuela, and between southern California and southern Ecuador—often wandering farther north after breeding as far as British Columbia or New York. On the Atlantic and Gulf coasts they breed mostly on barrier islands, natural islands in estuaries, and islands made of refuse from dredging, but in Florida and southern Louisiana they primarily use mangrove islets. On the West Coast they breed on dry, rocky offshore islands. When not feeding or nesting, they rest on sandbars, pilings, jetties, breakwaters, mangrove islets, and offshore rocks. There is one such island between Fort Fisher and Southport, along the mouth of the Cape Fear River, known by the locals as Pelican Island. It is easily seen by passengers taking the Fort Fisher Ferry.

Pelican Island along the mouth of the Cape Fear River.  Photo by Maymie Higgins

Pelican Island along the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Photo by Maymie Higgins

Pelicans are chief among the wildlife I adore in estuarine and marine ecosystems. A foraging pelican spots a fish from the air and dives head-first from as high as 65 feet over the ocean, tucking and twisting to the left to protect its trachea and esophagus from the impact. As it plunges into the water, its throat pouch expands to trap the fish, filling with up to 2.6 gallons of water. Observing their physical agility, acrobatics and death-defying diving skills along the surf, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the previous generations of wildlife champions that saved them from extinction.

Brown pelicans nearly disappeared between the late 1950s and early 1970s because of pesticides, including endrin and DDT. In 1970, brown pelicans were federally listed as endangered. In 1972 DDT was banned because of its effects in causing thin eggshells in multiple bird species. We can particularly thank Rachel Carson who, in her book Silent Spring, challenged conventional wisdom about pesticides in a way rarely done by females of her generation, let alone female scientists.

By 1985, brown pelican populations along the Atlantic and eastern Gulf coasts had recovered enough to be delisted. Though the Brown Pelican is Louisiana’s state bird, they had to be reintroduced to that state in a program that lasted from 1968 to 1980. The species reached pre-pesticide numbers by the late 1990s and was fully delisted in 2009, less than a year before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, creating an entirely new and substantial threat.

For now, it is reasonable to remain optimistic about the brown pelican’s future. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, brown pelicans have an extremely large range and their numbers appear to be increasing. For these reasons, the brown pelican is evaluated as Least Concern by the IUCN, in spite of the effects of pesticides and burly fishermen.

Celebrating Forty Years of The Endangered Species Act

Black-footed ferrets. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Black-footed ferrets.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This year is the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.  Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973.  On December 28th of that year, President Richard Nixon signed it into law.

The purpose of the ESA is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.  The Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has primary responsibility for terrestrial and freshwater plants and animals, and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is responsible for marine wildlife.

Loggerhead sea turtle. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Loggerhead sea turtle.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under the ESA, species are listed as endangered or threatened.  “Endangered” means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.  “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. All species of plants and animals, except pest insects, are eligible for listing as endangered or threatened.

Included under the ESA is any part, product, egg or offspring thereof, or the dead body or parts thereof for any plant or animal listed under the ESA, which includes both native U.S. and foreign species.  Any use or exhibition, such as in zoos and aquariums, of species listed under the ESA requires a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Karner blue butterfly. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Karner blue butterfly.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Endangered Species Act enabled FWS, NMFS and a wealth of non-governmental organizations, including zoos and aquariums, to save several well known species from the brink of extinction during the past four decades.  The most well known species that were protected under the ESA include the California condor, the Black-footed ferret, the Bald eagle, the American alligator, Red wolves, Peregrine falcons, Whooping cranes and Gray wolves.  These are incredible success stories but the work does not end at merely saving a species from extinction.  The protection often must continue in order to protect the species from the original threats.  Fortunately, there are many wildlife champions who continue the work.

Bald eagle. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bald eagle.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Saving Red Wolves: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the AZA Red Wolf SSP

By Maymie Higgins

red wolf tree

It was becoming cooler and darker inside the hollow tree trunk.  In spite of their restless wills, the five pups were sleeping soundly after nursing themselves to a sleep-inducing level of fullness. The mother shifted her weight, bent her long, delicate legs and raised just enough to peer out of the trunk opening.  Her mate should be returning soon.  He left to hunt just as the sun had fallen below the tree line.  She heard the snap of twigs from behind and quickly slipped back into the darkness.  From there she saw four paws appear at the opening.  She smelled rabbit and wasted no time in sharing the meal with her mate because nursing requires much energy.  She had hesitated in pairing up with this mate because he had an unusual hide around his neck.  But he turned out to be a good choice with excellent hunting and parenting skills.  In fact, she could only remember birthing three pups but somehow yesterday, there were five pups.  She immediately began caring for the new pups as if they had always been there, not worrying about her and her mate’s ability to feed and rear two more.  As the pair finished their meal, the eruption of coyote howls echoed across Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, the only place in the entire world where red wolves (Canis rufus) exist in the wild.


The red wolf was once common throughout the eastern and south central United States but their numbers declined in the early 20th century because of intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat.  Now they are one of the most endangered canids in the world. There are approximately 300 red wolves alive today, and only about 100 of them are at Alligator River.  The rest are in captivity in zoos and other captive breeding facilities throughout the United States.  All red wolves alive today are descended from a founding population of 14, from the total remaining 17 wild red wolves captured in 1980 along the Gulf coast in Texas and Louisiana.  Red wolves were then declared extinct in the wild.  A breeding program at Point Defiance Zoo had already begun in 1977 but the plan was revised in 1984 and approval was received from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for a Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP).  During the same year, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was established on land in northeastern North Carolina.  In 1987, experimental release of wolves took place and the first wild litter was born in 1988.  Other propagation locations and projects on several islands and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were initiated and all later ended by 2005.  All wild wolves in those locations were captured and placed in the 43 breeding zoos and facilities that participate in the AZA SSP.  The Red Wolf Recovery Program is supervised under the jurisdiction of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.  Red wolves have been listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1967.  You can read more about the recovery program here

As an intern at the North Carolina Zoological Park, I briefly had the privilege of working with captive red wolves.  At that time, there were two red wolves, a brother and sister, that were on exhibit for zoo visitors. The remaining nine red wolves were off-exhibit in several large fenced areas in about a half acre of wooded area, somewhat separated from the typical noise and activity of zoo operations and visitors.  While it is safe for zoo staff to go into the wolf enclosures, doing so is usually limited to no more than three times/week by only one person at a time.  There is no engagement of the wolves, either directly or indirectly.   Wolves want nothing to do with humans and, as is true for many animals, will go away without harming a human if given sufficient “flight distance”, which is the amount of space an animal needs between themselves and a predator to feel unthreatened.  It is important to preserve wild behaviors because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may choose any of the red wolves to be placed into the wild population, within reason.  Older red wolves or those who do not exhibit sufficient wild behaviors are not likely to be placed in the wild.  During my internship, a male red wolf was delivered to the zoo for veterinary care after living in the wild for many years.  He was older and had some health problems, which the zoo treated successfully.  He was retired from the wild at the very zoo in which he was born.

At Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, management of the wild population includes monitoring more than 70 radio-collared wolves as well as tracking and monitoring more than 60 sterilized coyotes (Canis latrans) referred to as placeholders.  Though coyotes and red wolves are two distinct species, they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring, known as wolf/coyote hybrids.  Therefore, to preserve pure red wolf DNA when coyote territory expanded into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, biologists began capturing, sterilizing and then releasing them back where they were captured.  Because coyotes are territorial, even when sterile, they continue to occupy the same territory as before but can no longer interbreed with wolves. This prevents new, fertile coyotes from moving into the territory and breeding with wolves.  There are studies suggesting that all red wolves today are hybrids, but this is still in debate and under scientific scrutiny.  Red wolves are only slightly larger than coyotes and are often mistaken for coyotes, which has resulted in several deaths by gunshot, even of collared wolves in the protected refuge.


Another part of wild population management has included successfully placing captive born pups with wild born litters of the same age.  These pups have gone on to become adult wolves with wild born litters of their own, helping to maintain genetic diversity and supplement the wild population.  The North Carolina Zoological Park also has a history of providing pups to wild born litters.

The red wolf story is just one of many examples of how biologists, veterinarians, keepers and aquarists at zoos and aquariums throughout the world are collaborating with governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and even corporations to conserve and preserve the natural world.  It is also a story of how challenging it can be to save a widely persecuted species in spite of the greatest available legal protection.  October 13-19 is Wolf Awareness Week and this will likely be a year of historical events that determine the plight of all wolf species forever.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove another wolf species, the gray wolf (Canis lupus), from the list of threatened and endangered species, which would shift management of wild populations to the state level.  Citizens may submit their comments about the delisting until December 17, 2013 at 11:59 pm at!documentDetail;D=FWS-HQ-ES-2013-0073-30560

Red wolves have been out of their historical range for so long, it is impossible to know for certain all the ways their absence has adversely affected the ecosystem.  However, reintroduction of gray wolves in the northwestern U.S. has yielded documented ecosystem benefits such as those observed in Yellowstone National Park.  This includes better regulation of prey numbers and movement (elk and deer), allowance of stream bank habitats to recover (elk forage and destroy less vegetation along the water’s edge because they are more vulnerable to wolves there), reduction of coyotes (gray wolves will kill coyotes in their territory) and increased food for scavengers (leftovers from a hunt).  Gray wolf recovery also required the assistance of zoos through an AZA SSP and, for now, is a positive story of the environment.  Even with the current debate I believe wolf advocates, who are a passionate and determined group, are going to successfully preserve these keystone species for a long time.

All photos obtained from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service website