Solving Problems with Nature - Naturally
ERIC P. ORFF
Certified Wildlife Biologist
Wildlife Author - Wildlife Lecturer -
Non-Lethal Control of Bats since 1983
THE FISHER: NEW HAMPSHIRE'S RODNEY DANGERFIELD
Historically speaking, New Hampshire's fisher, like Rodney Dangerfield, got no respect. Although fishers are now widespread, many of the state's citizens would prefer to have the fisher exterminated, or nearly so. Fishers are blamed for all manner of problems. The fisher has seemingly always been a creature of mystique, mystery and fear. Commonly -- and mistakenly -- called a "fisher cat," the fisher has endured the scorn of generations. Rabbits, patridge, pheasants, turkeys, horses and children are supposedly all vacuumed up by the fishers' relentless marauding. This is NOT the fisher I know!
Contrary to popular belief, house cats are not a regular food item for fishers. Scientific studies show that fisher prefer to eat small prey species. Mouse-sized mammals make up about a third of their diets, and a smaller proportion is snowshoe hare. Most of a fisher's diet consists of mice, small birds, fruit and berries, as well as deer in the form of carrion. Cat hairs were found in only one of over 1,000 stomachs examined in 1979 and 1980.
Fishers remain one of the most secretive and mysterious characters on the wildlife scene. About the size of a cat (measuring 20 to 25 inches long without the tail, and weighing about 6 to 12 pounds) a fisher has shorter legs and a longer body than a cat, so it looks more like its true relatives, the weasel, mink and otter. Fishers appear to be all black, but the fur around their face and shoulders is lighter in color. Solitary animals, fishers can be active day or night. They tend to avoid field and open land without overhead cover, preferring forested areas, especially those with the densest canopies, like evergreens.
Fishers, along with most of New Hampshire's other furbearers, were nearly exterminated from the state in the years before the Civil War because unregulated trapping since the mid-1600s had taken its toll. Habitat loss also contributed to the decline in the fisher population. The forested habitat preferred by the fisher was at a premium in those days, because much of New Hampshire's land was in agricultural use. Some measure of protection was afforded the fisher in the early 1900s, but it was not until 1934 that total protection was finally given to the few residual fisher left in the North Country.
The remnant population rebounded, re-establishing themselves in the state from north to south. It's not true that fishers were imported into the state in order to control porcupine numbers (though they are one of the few animals that prey on porcupines); rather, fisher populations came back once they were given complete protection. The fisher was again abundant enough in 1962 to declare an open season. During the early 1970s the value of fisher pelts soared, leading to another population crash in 1976. After a couple of years of closed seasons, fisher trapping re-opened in 1979 with a shortened season and restricted bag limits. The population has steadily increased since then, with trappers taking about a thousand fishers a year in the late 1990s, despite a much lower pelt value.
Based on evidence from the state's trappers, Fishers are abundant today in New Hampshire, especially in the southern third of the state. Fish and Game closely monitors changes in the population levels to assure there won't be another collapse in the number of fishers in the state. We don't want history to repeat itself, because this secretive mammal is part of what makes New Hampshire such a special and wild place to live.
--Eric Orff, Wildlife Biologist