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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin is helping to relocate fishers to Tennessee. It's hoped these woodland predators will reduce the number of skunks and raccoons preying on gamebird eggs. © Mike Gustafson
Wisconsin is helping to relocate fishers to Tennessee. It's hoped these woodland predators will reduce the number of skunks and raccoons preying on gamebird eggs.

© Mike Gustafson

August 2003

A long journey for the night hunter

Restoring the range where fishers roam takes teamwork.

Gregory M. Kinney

The smell of rotting lake trout drifts on the heavy night air through the pine and cedar forests near Lake Superior. Soon a brown figure, zigzagging through the darkness patrolling for squirrels or perhaps a porcupine, locks on to the scent.

Approaching the camouflaged, baited live-trap, the 10-pound fisher with a tense, tough wolverine-like attitude nervously twitches a cat-like tail. He steals a glance over his shoulder and slips into the wire cage to snatch the decomposing bait. Clank! The trap-door slams shut and the startled animal, a thrashing prisoner, paces during a long wait until morning. Then he will endure an unimaginable journey and a lifetime change – an eight-hour plane ride to a new life in the woods of Tennessee.

This arboreal weasel, sometimes called a wejack, but popularly known as a fisher (Martes pennanti), is one of 40 animals (20 breeding pairs) caught in the Chequamegon National Forest and surrounding woods of northern Wisconsin. The fisher will be tested, collared and, if found to be in good health, shipped to the 80,000-acre Catoosa Wildlife Management Area of eastern Tennessee. Fishers disappeared from that part of the Tennessee woodlands more than 120 years ago following intense trapping and logging.

"Our primary reason for reintroducing fishers is to restore the diversity of fauna that once lived here," said Bruce Anderson, a biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA). Also, he adds fishers were famous as voracious predators and are "a great biological control on egg-eating animals like skunks and 'possums," whose populations are rising rapidly in those woods in the absence of any natural predators. The reasoning goes that fishers can help restore balance by feeding on animals that prey on ground-nesting birds. The Tennessee biologists believe the restoration project should help populations of game birds like grouse and wild turkeys flourish.

In 1998, with funding provided by nonprofit groups like the Defenders of Wildlife and the Extirpated Species Foundation, Tennessee went shopping for fishers. Their first stop was in Wisconsin, which has a well-known program for managing furbearers and a reputation for helping with such projects.

"In the early 1990s, biologists in Montana had asked us to supply fishers for a project, said John F. Olson, Wisconsin DNR biologist in Park Falls. "We are extremely cooperative in projects like this. Fortunately, we have strong fisher populations and we can share some. We are proactive in supporting others, and we have similarly been the beneficiaries in the past." Olson said that Wisconsin's native fishers were extirpated in the late 1800s and reintroduced here in the 1950s and 60s from sources in Minnesota and New York. An estimated 10,400 fishers live in northern Wisconsin alone, slightly more than were planned in state management goals. Olson noted how wild turkeys from Missouri and, more recently, elk from Michigan were instrumental in reestablishing these extirpated species here in Wisconsin.

Anderson said that TWRA had established long-term, solid working relationships with Wisconsin colleagues and other personnel. "They are being good neighbors to us, and someday we hope to return the favor."

When trappers Mike Gustafson and Curt Basina got wind of the Tennessee fisher reintroduction program, they wanted in on the project in a big way. Both are members of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe Indians located north of Bayfield in the boreal woods that border Lake Superior. "We were both very interested in working with live animals," Basina told the Masinaigan, a quarterly tabloid of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC). "I've got a lot of respect for the fisher," Basina said. "They are hunting machines." Basina normally traps fishers with quick-killing conibear traps for sale to commercial fur markets.

In addition to their professional trapping duties, both Basina and Gustafson are trapping teachers and members of the Wisconsin Trappers Association. Their services came highly recommended to the biologists from both the Red Cliff Band and GLIFWC. Each of the trappers has since earned the respect and admiration of all the biologists involved in the trapping project. When the two woodsmen assured the Wisconsin DNR staff that they could fill the first-year quota of fishers (20 animals) in just 10 days of trapping, the officials were a bit dubious. Wildlife managers had estimated the trappers would need about 40 days to capture 20 of the extremely elusive fishers. In fact, the trapping team caught 32 fishers in just five days!

Gustafson and Basina both set out 25 wire live-traps on the northern edge of the Chequamegon National Forest and surrounding lands in Bayfield County. Each three-foot-long wire box was draped and covered with a spruce bow canopy and baited with decaying fish and skunk scent to beckon the long, sleek night hunter. Basina won't divulge one of his more effective "enticements" to lure in the wary weasel – "Ancient Indian secret," he says with a grin. The two men checked their traps every morning, often to get greeted by a 10- to 12-pound hissing, thrashing customer awaiting the arrival of its captor.

The two trappers are quite modest in describing their success. Basina surmised that an approaching powerful low-pressure system may have driven the voracious predators into some kind of hunting frenzy. "They were just on the move and clearly on the prowl," he said. Left to explain the eighth fisher caught in one night on one trapline, Basina admitted it was something he and his partner hadn't previously seen. "This was truly extraordinary by any standards. Just unbelievable."

Whether owing to weather, skilled trapping techniques or Indian "secrets," the unprecedented success thrilled everyone involved in the transfer and relocation project. Staff from the TWRA, GLIFWC, Wisconsin DNR, and Gretchen Gerber, a local veterinarian inspected each fisher, took a tooth sample for aging, determined the animal's sex and other measurements, fitted the sedated animal with a radio collar, then crated and prepared the fishers for the plane ride from Ashland's JFK Memorial Airport to Tennessee. Upon arrival, each animal was transported to the woodlands and set free.

"This project demonstrates that when state agencies, tribes and the private sector work together, great things can be accomplished," Bob Ferris, vice president of species conservation for Defenders of Wildlife told the Environmental News Network. "With the return of fishers, the mountains of East Tennessee are a little bit wilder, a little bit more natural than they were last year," or indeed, for more than a century.

Gregory M. Kinney writes from Bayfield.