Fishing for Power

By Beacon Staff

Two big and four tiny Green groups have filed an Endangered Species Act petition (yep, another one) with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), seeking to list the northern Rockies fisher, at least the second attempt to do so.

But I’ll bet my second-favorite rifle this petition is more about political leverage than it is about fishers.

Fishers are basically glorified weasels. Males run a bit over three feet long and plus or minus 10 pounds, with females about half the weight, two-thirds the size, with better, actually wonderful fur. I think I’ve seen one – it was big, fluffy and fast. Cool!
Fluffy means they make nice coats. My New York grandma had one.

Are fishers at risk? Well, they’re rare, but rarity doesn’t always equal endangerment. I visited Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ website to look at its trapping data, which could be better. With under 5,000 Montana trappers paying $20 a year, FWP only gets about $100,000 in annual license revenues for administration, leaving not much for research.

However, Brian Giddings of FWP wrote a furbearer program report covering a period from 1994 to 2009 that shows some trends: Fisher have a statewide quota of seven (worth $145 in 2012-13), in contrast to the harvest of 2,428 bobcat in the 2008-2009, ($590 each 2012-13).

Small harvests give small sample sizes, problematic for trend tracking or statistical analysis, of course. But fisher “harvest continues to be very stable” and, as fisher harvest must be reported to FWP, it is known that trapping has produced a mixed age structure with “good representation of juveniles in most years.” In short, fisher reproduction is good.

In fact, the Defenders of Wildlife fisher webpage states that re-introductions of fisher into historic habitats have been successful in 10 states and two Canadian provinces. Ironically, reintroduction would become vastly more difficult and bureaucratic after an ESA listing.

By the way, there’s another tidbit in Giddings’ trapping report – in February 2014, the USFWS will decide if wolverines ($235 per fur) should be ESA-listed. But Giddings reports that wolverines were “considered recovered in Montana from a low point in the 1930s” by the 1970’s – and today’s trapping limits are even more careful. So of course, “climate change,” not trapping, is wolverines’ “threat” du jour.

What might explain, as Arlene Montgomery of petitioner Friends of the Wild Swan puts it, the “increasing number of fishers being caught in traps?” Moderate fur prices and low harvest (not even enough for a decent coat) gives the impression that if any Montana trappers actively pursue fisher, it’s only as a special keepsake. Even with comparatively high trapper numbers and prices, it seems likelier that more fisher captures simply indicates more fishers to catch, thanks to careful management.

So, what’s the real goal behind this petition? Let’s parse this statement from Defenders of Wildlife talker Kylie Paul: “Their dangerously low numbers make this cousin of the weasel susceptible to ongoing and increasing threats such as trapping and habitat loss from logging and fires.”

First, “dangerously low numbers” – again, rarity isn’t endangerment. But rare often implies hard (expensive) to study, with many unknowns. In short, the “best available science” driving policy might be nowhere close to “best” – not even “good.”

Second, the “threats” of trapping, logging and fires: The petitioning groups have never, ever supported trapping and logging, and never will. Never mind smart forestry moderates fires that wreck habitat. Are we getting warmer?

Yep, so here’s my bet: I’ll offer up my precious 221 Fireball parts rifle to any petitioner spokesperson-of-record. All they have to do is rent a lie detector and certified operator. Once wired, their representative can answer a few simple questions (from an interrogator I choose) in a Flathead County public forum before any witnesses (including press) who care to attend.

The intent is to determine if this fisher petition is really, truly, honestly about protecting fishers, nothing more. If the lie detector determines this petition is not a surrogate means of stopping forestry and trapping, not cover for a hidden political agenda, not blatant fishing for power – they win the rifle.