Research Report #61 — Return of the Fisher
For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.
A Note from Paul C. Huth, Director of Research Emeritus:
Some 30 years ago, I remember getting a call from a local resident who had a small farm operation raising produce for personal use, telling me that a Fisher had attacked one of his free range chickens. Hearing the commotion, it was chased oﬀ. But that night, the fisher returned and killed all of his chickens in their coop. An upsetting and devastating loss.
And yet, thinking of the Fisher, it was only using its instinct to take advantage of an opportunity for food. Much like a Shawangunk Fisher that likely tried to take the small domestic stock of the first settlers on the then wild ridge, some 300 years ago. Between the “then and now,” is the larger reflection of a wild native species, harvested as an economic resource and removed when in conflict with humans, resulting in its population loss and ultimate demise in large parts of its ancestral range. But, more recently, it is also an example of enlightened ecosystem conservation and successful native species restoration.
The exceptional 20th century naturalist Daniel Smiley at Mohonk, began observing and recording the natural and cultural history of the Shawangunks in the mid-1920’s. Over the decades, with his brother Keith, Dan developed a keen sense of place and how species and natural communities worked and had changed over time as a result of sometimes intense human pressures. In large part, as a result of Dan and Keith’s knowledge and persuasion, large areas of the Shawangunk ridge were able to be set aside and protected as natural landscapes, available for compatible recreation and public education. These mountain lands today include both the Mohonk Preserve of over 8,000 acres, and the adjacent Minnewaska State Park Preserve, spanning over 22,000 acres.
Large parts of the ridge that had been intensely impacted by human activities in the 18th, 19th, and first half of the 20th centuries, resulted in devastating impacts on many native species, even leading to the extirpation of some. Since then, the ridge has largely returned to a state of wildness. Landscape dependent species have accordingly changed too. Dan, and The Mohonk Trust, in the 1970’s, was in a unique position to encourage and participate in state and non-profit organization restoration eﬀorts for two extirpated charismatic and key native predator species-first the Peregrine Falcon, and then the Fisher. But should they? Dan grappled with the question, “I had to struggle with my own philosophy about the attempt to reintroduce the peregrine as a component of the biota of this area. I arrived at the same answer I had always come to: it was appropriate to try to restore this component of the Shawangunk ecosystem in an attempt to achieve the former diversity of the fauna of the area…by so doing we were discharging a philosophical obligation to a species. which man has extirpated… it seemed to me that we have a responsibility to future generations of humans to enable them to experience this spectacular bird in a spectacular setting.” The same philosophy rang true for Dan regarding the Fisher. In October 1976, Dan wrote, “In 1957, I did some study of the fisher, because of my concern for the increasing population of porcupines in the Catskills and Shawangunks. I have become more than ever convinced that fisher would be a desirable addition to the mountains of Ulster County. I hope that the reintroduction of the fisher can go forward, and I will be glad to help with it if I can.”
In this 1983 research report, Ann van der Meulen, as a SUNY New Paltz graduate student in Environmental Studies, reviewed available literature on Fisher biology and population over time, and was in contact with wildlife biologists at the Region 3 Oﬃce of DEC, regarding the organization and planning leading up to the trap and transfer program and release of Adirondack Fisher in southeastern New York State, and initial assessment. Ann also took the opportunity to interview one of the local participating New York State Wildlife Biologists, Dick Henry. While a mostly generalized paper for her class in Environmental Conservation, Ann presented detail of the locations of the 42 individual Fisher releases over four years, from 1976 to 1979, at three sites in the Shawangunks, and at one location in the Catskills.
The loss of the Fisher in the local area was documented as early as 1842, by James E. De Kay, in his historic contribution to the “Natural History of New York,” “Zoology of New York, or the New-York Fauna; Part 1. Mammalia.” De Kay reports that “The Fisher or Black Cat of our hunters, is a large and powerful animal, standing nearly a foot from the ground. It was formerly abundant in this State, but is now confined to thinly settled northern districts”. In 1898, Edgar Alexander Mearns, MD, published his paper entitled “Notes on the Mammals of the Catskill Mountains, New York, with General Remarks on the Fauna and Flora of the Region,” “based on observations covering the period between August 4 and September 14, 1896, supplemented by such information as could be obtained from residents of the region.” The Fisher was not listed, but under the entry for the “Sable; Pine Martin,” he reports that “Some residents assert that both the pine martin and the pekan, M. pennanti Erxleben, are still sometimes taken in the Catskills; others exclude the pekan, but say the marten still exists.” The common name, “pek-an,” apparently originates from an old Eastern Abenaki word.
One of the best papers on the biology, occurrence, and behavior of the Fisher, appeared in the January 1955 “New York Fish and Game Journal,” by noted naturalists and mammalogists William J. Hamilton, Jr., and Arthur H. Cook. They reported that “The fisher has increased notably in the Adirondack Mountain region in recent years…greatly extending its range from the mountainous country to outlying areas.” “It is suggested that fishers might be live-trapped and released in suitable habitats in the Catskill Mountains, where the species does not presently occur.” “Stocking would need to be carried on for only a few years. After that, success or failure would be evidenced by whether the species persisted or disappeared. If successful, natural spread might extend its range to other parts of the region….”
The Fisher Trap and Transfer Program was concentrated in the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Region 3, Bureau of Wildlife, in New Paltz. “The primary objective was to ‘establish and maintain fisher populations at a carrying capacity density of 3–5 animals per 10 square miles of available habitat by 1987–88, to provide a more diversified furbearer and aesthetic resource.’” The release sites on Mohonk Trust land were chosen in large part “because of our long-term natural history records and the prospect of stable land management and continuing observation in the future.” The Catskill Mountains location in the Slide Mountain wild area, was chosen because of its size and, like the Shawangunks, that the landscape can support a Fisher population “where they historically existed.” Adirondack trappers were paid to live trap Fishers for the Department, at the start, $125 each as an incentive for trappers. But because of an increase in the price of fur, the live price changed “to $125 for males and $200 for females.” “The fisher were caught, usually in a box trap (supplied by the Department), and then transported to the Conservation Department oﬃce in Delmar, N.Y., just southwest of Albany.” There “the animals (were) treated for disease or injury, inoculated against feline and canine distemper, tagged for identification with ear tags and then released.”
“On 5 November 1976, a young male fisher, weighing 7.7 pounds and wearing ear tag #1, was released at Rhododendron Swamp.” This, likely the first Fisher to set foot in the Shawangunks in over a century, and the culmination of some twenty years of Dan’s advocating for their reintroduction, in part, as a predator of an increasing population of Porcupines (See Research Report №21-“Of Porcupines and People”). On 23 November, two more males were released in Rhododendron Swamp, and three males were released at Bonticou. On 21 December, a female was released at Rhododendron Swamp, and two females were released in the Minnewaska State Park, on 27 and 29 December. In April and May 1977, four females and one male were released at Minnewaska, and in the late summer and fall of 1978, four females and three males were also released there, for a Shawangunks total of 21 animals. In the fall of 1978 and 1979, a total of 21 animals were released on Slide Mountain, 9 males and 12 females. The total release sex ratio was 19 males and 23 females.
The wild six acre Rhododendron Swamp was chosen as the first Fisher release site as its location is very accessible, with the Lower Laurel Carriage Road running along its westerly side, and the Rhododendron Cliﬀ beyond. On one of the first releases in 1976, when the box trap was opened for the release, Dan was surprised at the speed of the animal exiting the trap, running quickly across the swamp floor, over Laurel Ledge Road, and then strait up the mostly vertical Rhododendron Cliﬀ beyond! Dan’s photograph showed it all, the front part of the animal in focus, the rest in a blur. One of the animals released at Minnewaska in 1977, with tag #34, was, in 1978, reported “treed by a dog near Hampton, New Jersey, 85 miles to our south.” It was trapped and returned to the Shawangunks. Unfortunately, later, in the winter, it was “killed in a fight with a dog near Allentown, Pennsylvania,” some 100 miles to our southwest!
In 1979, DEC began conducted winter tracking surveys. For a number of years, Fisher were also attracted to a Deer carcass bait station established and monitored by Mohonk Preserve Research and Stewardship staﬀ in Rhododendron Swamp, near the first release site, where their distinctive tracks could be observed in the snow. “About 1981 their numbers began to increase dramatically.” In late 1983, Dick Henry reported that a local trapper had caught “a large male fisher.” DEC staﬀ were able to assess the tranquilized animal and confirm, from a pulled tooth, that it was a “Catskill bred and born fisher.” In June, 1984, Dick prepared a report on a Fisher population survey to determine their presence, distribution, and relative abundance in DEC Regions 3 and 4. He documented a grand total of 104 occurrences noted since the inception of the program, between October 1976 and March 1984. An experimental fisher trapping season was opened by DEC in 1985, with a harvest limit of one animal. That year, a Napanoch trapper “caught the first legally trapped…fisher in 100 years.” With increasing numbers being taken over the following years, the bag limit was finally cancelled in “the early 1990’s.” Of interest, Dick reported that analysis of fall trapped Fisher carcasses showed that “(a)bout a third of them had evidence of porcupine quills in the face and neck area, but seemed unbothered by them. Stomach contents were interesting: they eat damn near anything. Small mammals, birds, snakes, chickens, frogs, even skunk remains all turned up….”
Today, the Fisher shows its adaptability. While the species has historically demonstrated a preference for “dense canopy cover and large diameter trees,” in more recent years, and since its reintroduction and establishment in the Catskills and Shawangunks, animals have been observed in younger second growth slope forests and in old field areas. On 15 May 2002, in just such a young second growth forest in an area of former Mohonk old fields, Mohonk Preserve Director of Education, Kathy Ambrosini, was leading a group of young grade school students on an old woods road trail below Duck Pond, on the east slope of the Preserve. Ahead, unaware of them due to the windy day, a Fisher ran out onto the trail, such that the students could participate in a “teachable moment,” before it quickly dispersed. Since then, using newer technology in field research, they have become frequent subjects on trail cams.