U.S. denies full protection for Pacific fisher, relative of the weasel

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Thursday denied Endangered Species Act protection to a weasel-like woodland mammal called the Pacific fisher across most of its West Coast range, except for a dwindling population in California’s southern Sierras.

A Pacific fisher, a weasel-like woodland mammal indigenous to the forests of the Pacific Northwest in the U.S., is seen in this undated handout photo. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife/Handout via REUTERS

The final decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sharply criticized by conservation groups, marked a reversal of the agency’s 2019 proposal to list the Pacific fisher as a threatened species from northern California to the Canadian border.

It capped a 20-year legal battle by environmental groups seeking to protect the elusive, tree-dwelling predator whose diet includes porcupines, squirrels and other small mammals in the old-growth forests razed by logging in the Pacific Northwest.

Relatives of ferrets, minks, badgers, martens and other members of the weasel family, Pacific fishers once roamed the woodlands of the West Coast from British Columbia to Southern California by the tens of thousands.

But their numbers have declined dramatically since the early 1900s, first from fur trappers who prized their pelts and later by the timber industry that fragmented their habitat.

Over the past decade, fishers have fallen victim to another threat, rodenticides used in illegal marijuana cultivation, said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that petitioned the government to safeguard the animals.

Climate change is also believed to have taken its toll.

The animal’s precise numbers are unknown, but only two naturally occurring populations remain - about 100 to 500 in the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, and roughly 3,000 in northern California and southern Oregon.

Fishers also were recently introduced in three national parks in Washington state.

The Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that safeguarding the Sierra cohort of fishers as an endangered species was warranted. But the larger population farther north remains sufficiently resilient so that the animal is not in danger of extinction “nor likely to become so in the foreseeable future,” it said.

Granting “threatened” or “endangered” status to the fishers poses a hindrance to further logging in their habitat by making it illegal to kill or harm the animals without a special permit to do so.

Greenwald said his group was “looking closely” at the 200-plus page decision to decide whether to challenge its findings in court.

“We’re glad (the fisher) finally got protection in the southern Sierra, but the decision not to protect it in the rest of its range runs totally counter to science,” he told Reuters. He called the decision “an unwarranted gift to the timber industry.”

Agency officials were not immediately available for comment.

Protracted efforts to list the fisher as endangered were blocked by previous findings under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but were challenged in court, leading to Thursday’s decision.

Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler