The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing Endangered Species Act protections for the Pacific fisher, a relative of the weasel that persists in small numbers in forests of southwest Oregon and Northern California.
The agency's proposal, set to be published Thursday in the Federal Register, come days after the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service entered into agreements with five timber companies and the state of Oregon to protect the Pacific fisher on nearly 2 million acres of forestland in Oregon.
The proposal to extend "threatened" status to Pacific fishers prohibits activities that bring harm, injury or death to the carnivorous mammals. It provides exceptions — essentially allowing the inadvertent killing of these protected animals — if it happens during activities like habitat management or "forestry management activities for the purposes of reducing the risk or severity of wildfires."
Those exceptions drew criticism from conservationists that have been pushing for the Pacific fisher's protection from habitat destruction. They decried what they called loopholes to allow ongoing logging in Pacific fisher habitat.
“Fishers deserve actual safeguards under the Endangered Species Act, not this weak proposal that doesn’t fully protect their habitat,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The exemptions to their protection are fuzzier than fishers themselves.”
The first bid to list the Pacific fisher as threatened was made four years ago but was withdrawn after researchers determined the data did not adequately identify wildfire or exposure to rodent poison.
“Since that time, we’ve been working a lot with private landowners and state agencies as well to develop candidate conservation agreements to help further fisher conservations and so we made a lot of headway there,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Sue Livingston said. “Right now, we got agreements out for almost two million acres that are enrolled in these agreements which we expect to benefit fishers.”
According the agency's announcement, the new proposed rule has the best scientific and commercial data available for the species.
The Pacific fisher is about half the size of a cat and has a long tail. It resides in mixed conifer-hardwood forests.
“A lot of times when people see these animals they’re dashing across the road,” Livingston said.
Being hit by vehicles is one of many threats that have put the species on the edge of extinction. Trapping and logging have also been attributed to the fisher's population drop. Other threats — wildfire, drought and tree disease — are becoming more severe as a result of climate change caused by the continued emission of greenhouse gasses through the burning of coal, gasoline, and other fossil fuels.
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service's Oregon state supervisor, Paul Henson, said his agency wants to continue to expand Pacific fishers in certain parts of their historic range where they are no longer found.
"We've been re-introducing fisher up in Washington state in several areas, most recently in the Cascades of Washington State and also up in the Olympic Peninsula and we'd like to consider doing that in portions of Oregon where they've not naturally expanded too." Henson said.
The proposal's publication in the Federal Register kicks off a 30-day public comment period.