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Pacific fisher denied protection under the Endangered Species Act

Pacific fisher

The Pacific fisher, the largest member of the weasel family.  

(California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Federal wildlife authorities on Thursday denied Endangered Species Act protection to the small, isolated populations of Pacific fishers in Washington, Oregon and California, including the southern Sierra Nevada range.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014 proposed listing the largest member of the weasel family as threatened throughout the region because of threats including logging, wildfires and the use of pesticides by marijuana growers.

On Thursday, however, agency said those threats were found to be not as significant as previously thought. In addition, Robyn Thorson, director of the agency’s Pacific region, said that “voluntary conservation measures” by the timber industry could increase habitat for the carnivore.

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Also Thursday, Weyerhaeuser Co., one of the world’s largest private owners of timberlands, announced plans to commit up to 3 million acres of forested holdings in Washington and Oregon to support efforts to reintroduce fishers throughout the western U.S.

Environmental groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity said the agency’s decision not to list the Pacific fisher was “politically driven” and not based on the best available science.

“The politically driven reversal of proposed protection for the fisher is the latest example of the Fish and Wildlife Service kowtowing to the wishes of industry,” said Tanya Sanerib, an attorney at the center. “Fishers may be tough enough to prey on porcupines, but they need Endangered Species Act protection to survive.”

Strongly associated with old-growth forests, fishers are mostly dark brown and have long, slender bodies with short legs and long, bushy tails. They have triangular heads with sharp pronounced muzzles and large rounded ears. Their face, neck and shoulders are silver or light brown, contrasting with glossy black tails and legs.

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The fisher’s range was reduced dramatically in the 1800s and early 1900s because of trapping, predator control, logging and urban development.

Of particular concern is the fate of the southern Sierra population south of Yosemite National Park, which has been reduced to as few as 300 animals.

Overall, there are an estimated 4,000 fishers in the northern forests of the United States and Canada.

The center petitioned to protect the Pacific fisher in 1994 and again in 2000. A decade later, the center sued over the delay in protecting the animal, and the agency was required to issue a decision this year.

In a related matter, a federal judge in Montana a week ago chastised the agency for yielding to political pressure when it reversed a proposal to list the wolverine -- then ordered it to protect the species as soon as possible.

“Just like the wolverine and the coastal martin,” Sanerib said, “once more we may be forced to head to court to defend species, science and law from political interference.”

Follow me @LouisSahagun for more fascinating stories.

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