Endangered species protections in Oregon and Northern California for a rarely seen, forest-dwelling mammal were turned down Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The federal agency did approve Endangered Species Act protections for the Pacific fisher in parts of the Sierra Nevada, where it was listed as “endangered” with extinction.
But it said such protections were not justified for the Pacific fisher in the forests of Northern California and Southern Oregon. The decision rejected a 2019 proposal to list fishers as “threatened” throughout the West Coast range.
Pacific fishers are predatory mammals related to weasels, minks, martens and otters. They are about half the size of a cat and inhabit mixed conifer-hardwood forests.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to separate the Pacific Fisher into two distinct populations. Studies have shown the two populations are genetically different and are separated by a geographic gap of about 130 miles. The groups are the Southern Sierra Nevada distinct population and the Northern California-Southern Oregon distinct population.
The decision to not extend Endangered Species Act protections for the Northern California-Southern Oregon population came down to a few factors, according to the government. It was found to be more widespread within its range, have more diversity in ages between male to female ratios and have breeding and reintroduction success. This, along with current and proposed fisher habitat conservation efforts on public and private timberlands, enable this population to maintain balance and withstand setbacks.
A Fish and Wildlife Service official in Oregon praised the timber industry as a big reason the Trump administration was able to sidestep Endangered Species Act protections for the Pacific fisher throughout its range.
“Voluntary conservation efforts by state and private timber owners have contributed to the Northern California-Southern Oregon population of fisher appearing stable within a large range of suitable habitat,” Oregon's state supervisor, Paul Henson, said in a press release statement.
He cited the voluntary adoption of conservation measures for fisher habitat across 2 million acres.
“The heavy lifting done by our partners greatly alleviates the need for regulation,” Henson said.
Conservation groups said the failure to protect all Pacific fishers and their habitat under the Endangered Species Act heightens their risk of going extinct.
The Center For Biological Diversity’s Endangered Species Director Noah Greenwald said he doesn’t disagree that there are two distinct fisher populations but that the Northern California-Southern Oregon population would have been at one time part of a larger population that included all of Oregon and Western Washington and extended into Canada.
“The loss of historic range is part of what makes that population at risk and in fact the isolation of the Southern Sierra population is part of what makes it endangered as well,” Greenwald said.
He also said the decision to only list the Southern Sierra population was purely political and a gift to the timber industry.
“The fisher, as clearly documented in that finding, faces numerous threats including logging of its habitat, rodenticides that are used for marijuana grow operations and climate change,” Greenwald said. “There’s really nothing to show that the fisher is now secure or doesn’t need protection.”
Greenwald said his group is currently reviewing the findings and will consider another challenge in court as most of the Pacific fisher population is in Southern Oregon and Northern California.
Conservation organizations have been petitioning to list the Pacific fisher under the Endangered Species Act since 2000. In 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a rule finding that listing was warranted but did not finalize listing. In 2010, conservation groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force them to complete the listing process. Again, the service proposed federal protection for the fisher in 2014, but then withdrew the proposal in 2016. Conservation organizations then filed suit alleging that the denial ignored the science in a politically motivated bow to the timber industry. But they’ve found little support from the current administration.
"The Trump administration is turning a blind eye to the widespread poisoning of fishers associated with illegal marijuana grows and the BLM's (Bureau of Land Management) recent ramp-up of clearcut logging on public lands,” Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center Conservation Director George Sexton said. “The declining Pacific fisher population in the Klamath-Siskiyous faces more risks than ever and needs real protections now if the species is to survive."