Fishers, Grizzlies, and the 'Reverse Apocalypse' of Washington's Wildlife

Species that were nearly wiped out are seeing significant recovery in the Washington wilderness.

A long an unnamed creek in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, seven pine crates are lined up in a row, hatch doors pointed toward an anonymous swath of Pacific Northwest pine forest consumed by green. In the misting rain, even the air seems to take on an emerald hue.

One by one the doors on the crates are slid open—an act that, from the inside, must look like an eyelid awakening to a paradise of Douglas fir and fern and cling moss and lichen. This is land that instinct and millennia of evolution has made familiar to the boxes’ freight. It is habitable, for all the dens provided by downed trees in the underbrush; plentiful, for all the mice and squirrels; safe, for all the canopy cover it can provide.

Ancestors to the species in the crate, the fisher, likely first came to North America in the mid-Pleistocene epoch, a million or so years ago, by way of the Bering Ice Bridge. The fisher is a small animal, 12 pounds set so low to the ground that its belly can drag against the forest floor as it hunts for prey. It is agile as well, and can climb down trees face first. A thick, rich coat means it can hunt and travel in temperatures well below zero and stay warm in soaking winter rain. A highly solitary animal, fishers use a somewhat mysterious system of dark, sticky deposits to communicate for purposes of mating. Vicious, it’s the only predator known to selectively prey on porcupine.

As Edward McCord, a professor of environmental law at the University of Pittsburgh who has published extensively on wildlife, noted in his 2012 book, The Value of Species: “Every living species represents a dynamic process of the earth that is infinitely astonishing.” That is, in every species, one can see the sum of a million small impressions made on it by its environment—clay sculptures with the sculptor’s thumbprints detectable to the savvy eye, “something that is unique and unrepeatable in the universe.”

Such is the relationship between these fishers in the boxes and these woods.

Each fisher emerges from its captivity in full lunge. For a moment, to the dozens of government officials, school children, biologists, and journalists gathered to witness the scene, each animal is completely conspicuous, a fat streak of brown across a canvas of green. Cameras whir and people aww. Then, with a few more bounds, it disappears. Absorption. A cog setting into a perfectly engineered wheel; even when one of the animals, 100 yards or so out, perches on some deadfall and looks back to see what it is leaving behind, bobbed ears perked to the ape sounds of the humans, it is difficult to see where its body ends and the environment begins.

These seven fishers, several of them pregnant females, are the first of their kind to stalk this ground in nearly a century. Before another fisher reintroduction on the Olympic Peninsula in 2008, the animal had been altogether absent from Washington state for more than 70 years. Once common, their pelts in the 1920s could fetch hundreds of dollars—thousands in today’s dollars.

The fisher is not alone in its disappearance from the wilds of Washington.

In the blink of an eye, evolutionarily speaking, that the state of Washington has existed, no fewer than 10 mammals have effectively been lost: Bison, woodland caribou, grizzly bears, wolverines, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, sea otters, gray wolves, pygmy rabbits, and the fisher vanished from the landscapes that formed them.

Unlike a clearcut or an open-pit mine, these environmental degradations are almost by definition invisible. Even in thick grizzly-bear country like Glacier and Yellowstone parks, sightings of the greatest predator in North America are rare and special moments. So to remove the griz from the landscape was to remove a phantom, the impossible subtlety of unseen into unseeable.

It’s arguably pointless to talk about what species do and do not exist in “Washington,” as arbitrary as state and international borders are to wildlife. In 1997, The Nature Conservancy released a study that noted Washington was the only state in the country that hadn’t seen any of its native species go extinct. But that figure wasn’t due to any great legacy of conservation here. It just so happened that most of Washington’s native species also existed elsewhere, where the pressures of modern man had yet to imperil them. Namely, British Columbia. As American Western expansion flooded the Puget Sound region with godlike power, Canada has served as an arboreal Noah’s ark for many of the species that could not survive the onslaught of humanity on this side of the border.

But today, in what’s been a major but piecemeal sea change, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the dove has returned with the olive branch, that the flood is over and it is time for Washington’s creatures to return to land—by sevens if not by twos.

Of the 10 mammals that have at some point been entirely wiped out in Washington, nine have either returned to the state’s landscape or are the subject of active restoration efforts. Bighorns and sea otters were restored with active reintroduction work in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but most of the animals, like the fisher, have only recently seen significant recovery efforts. Consider:

• The wolverine, locally extinct since the 1930s due to overtrapping, has naturally repopulated the Cascades. In 2013, astounded biologists determined that wolverines coming down from British Columbia had become residents of the Washington Cascades. Earlier this year, biologists found signs of the species just a few miles north of I-90, the farthest south the North Cascades population had been detected since the recent expansion.

• The state’s population of woodland caribou, a spectacular, spindly animal that finds its southernmost range in northeastern Washington, was largely wiped out in the mid-20th century by logging and overhunting. The caribou are particularly reliant on old-growth forest for survival. They evade predators by migrating to higher elevations in the winter, staying atop the snow with hooves as wide as dinner plates. As snow piles up, they can reach dangling lichen higher and higher on each tree. Logging has so decimated their American habitat that there remain serious doubts as to whether the caribou will ever come back. But in the past five years the species has been given an 11th-hour exoneration from American extinction in the form of habitat protections in north Idaho and reintroduction work directly across the border in British Columbia that aims to augment the herd that makes its home in the transnational Selkirk Mountains. Following the animal’s continued population decline, Canadian wildlife officials in 2011 began a captive breeding program in continued efforts to save the herd that provides the best hope for a Washington caribou population.

• No gray wolves bred in Washington between the 1930s and 2008, when a new pack was confirmed in western Okanogan County. It was another year before a second pack was confirmed. Now, seven years on, at least 16 packs totaling 68 wolves live in the state, a striking display of the wolf’s ability to thrive on the Washington landscape absent targeted hunting programs. While wolves were the subject of reintroduction work in central Idaho and Yellowstone, the wolves in Washington may be the result of natural migration from British Columbia.

• The grizzly bear—perhaps the ultimate measure of a thriving ecosystem on account of the massive range the species requires—has in effect been removed from the Washington wilds. One must say “in effect” because the occasional bear is seen on this side of the border with Canada. However, grizzlies may well return to the North Cascades in coming years, as a coalition of government agencies research the viability of transplanting a handful of bears, likely from British Columbia.

• The pronghorn, often called an antelope, is the fastest land animal in North America; it can reach speeds of 60 miles an hour, an evolutionary response to outrunning prehistoric cats that haven’t existed for 11,000 years. Lewis and Clark noted herds of the animal along the north shore of the Columbia River, as did many other subsequent explorers. However, overhunting and disease from European livestock wiped out the animal in Washington.

• Also since 2011, the state of Washington, in collaboration with several private organizations, has been bringing pygmy rabbits from other states and breeding them in captivity for release in semi-arid regions; 1,200 of the rabbits have been released in central Washington since the program began, and this year it was expanded to new areas.

The sum of all this: Thanks largely to very recent developments and efforts, within the next seven years, the state has a strong opportunity to see a significant portion of its wildlife restored—nine out of 10 of its extirpated mammals.

“We are seeing a renaissance of sorts,” says Dave Werntz, science and conservation director at Conservation Northwest, who personally oversaw the transportation of fishers from the Williams Lake area of British Columbia to Washington. “We are restoring the suite of wildlife that have occurred on these lands for a very long period of time.”

A tracking device of the type used to monitor released fishers. Photo by Daniel Person

While attempting to make an argument for the gains made in the realm of wildlife recovery, it can be tempting to talk in cold scientific terms—data-driven proofs of improved ecosystems on account of a recovered species.

During the highly controversial wolf recovery in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, wolves were billed as a cure-all salve to a gravely sick ecosystem. For example, as for beavers, it was expected that wolves would reduce elk and moose populations to the point that fewer willows would be eaten, thus aiding the wetlands that were necessary for the beavers’ survival. This kind of chain reaction is called a “trophic cascade,” and its role in justifying the reintroduction of the wolf can’t be overstated. Quantified benefits of Canis lupus poured forth in a torrent from conservation organizations hyper-attuned to the perceived costs of the animal’s return.

But this way of thinking about wildlife conservation and restoration can be problematic in a few ways. First, it is almost always too simplistic to prove correct in the chaotic wild. These days, 20 years after a handful of Alberta wolves were airmailed to Yellowstone, conservationists admit that many of the trophic-cascade predictions made early on haven’t panned out.

As wildlife biologist Arthur Middleton wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2014: “This story—that wolves fixed a broken Yellowstone by killing and frightening elk—is one of ecology’s most famous. It’s the classic example of what’s called a ‘trophic cascade,’ and has appeared in textbooks, on National Geographic centerfolds, and in this newspaper. Americans may know this story better than any other from ecology, and its grip on our imagination is one of the field’s proudest contributions to wildlife conservation. But there is a problem with the story: It’s not true.”

These findings have extended the endless, and endlessly frustrating, debate over wolves in the continental United States—if not for the trophic cascade, why have wolves at all? Which leads to the second problem with justifying a species with hard statistics: the suggestion that any justification is needed for reversing mankind’s impact on wildlife beyond the clearly self-evident one.

“We messed things up in the past,” Werntz says. “We made mistakes and we caused species that make their home in Washington to disappear or decline to the point they are no longer recovering on their own. If we were to do nothing, then the fisher would not likely come back. We had 70 to 80 years with no fisher trapping in the state, and they didn’t come back on their own. So you’re faced with a pretty bright line of choice: You either recover the species or you live with that wrong.

“I think we have an obligation to make good, to fix what we broke in the past.”

No doubt, there remain purely selfish—or human—reasons to bring back species. By some reasoning, our desire to save the fisher is as much in our nature as the fisher’s desire to hunt a vole.

“It’s pretty unique to humans to be capable of having so much of our perception of the world based on learning rather than genes,” McCord, author of The Value of Species, notes in a phone interview. “A bat will never know the wondrous thing it is. Who could be dismissive of that power and what we’re given in that capacity?”

“It’s awfully exciting,” offers a beaming Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, following the fisher release. “It’s worth it for the emotional value. For us to be having this reverse apocalypse, it’s a wonderful story.”

The reverse apocalypse is indeed a wonderful story, but is it true?

When one stops squinting at the single metric of restored species in Washington and considers the wider state of wildlife in the state, things still look pretty grim. Down around Olympia, pocket gophers continue to see declines for the simple reason that their habitat happens to be flat lowlands good for housing developments. Lynx number under 100 in the state, and are headed in the wrong direction. For all the effort, many conservationists grumble privately that it’s hard to be too optimistic about the woodland caribou’s long-term fate in Washington, severely compromised as its habitat stands.

John Fleckenstein, zoologist for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, dispenses the cold water: “If you look at sheer numbers, I’m sure there are lots more mammals that are slipping downhill in Washington than are improving in their conservation status.”

Middleton, in the Times, argued that lionizing the wolf’s return to Yellowstone distracts from greater ecological problems. “The warmest temperatures in 6,000 years are changing forests and grasslands. . . . Natural-gas drilling is affecting the winter ranges of migratory wildlife. To protect cattle from disease, our government agencies still kill many bison that migrate out of the park in search of food.”

A skeptic could see December’s fisher release as a token gesture, an empty genuflection toward the ideals of conservation. Seven large weasel-like creatures do not a restored ecosystem make. And what if the media spectacle of the fisher release is just distracting from more pressing issues?

“I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive—restoring degraded habitat and working to restore species that live in that habitat,” says Werntz. “They can all happen simultaneously and should happen simultaneously.

“The reason we are able to release the fisher is because we made decisions in the past to protect habitat. These are the key things in wildlife conservation that we need to be doing simultaneously. We need to be connecting habitat and we need to be rewilding it.”

That logic will hold true, to a scale an order of magnitude greater, with the return of the grizzly to Washington. The reason the northern Cascades are being studied for reintroduction isn’t simply that griz were there before—that can be said of almost all western North America. But the northern Cascades represents one of the only wild areas in the Lower 48 large enough to support a viable population. That is not by accident, but by virtue of deliberate efforts to protect the area from mining, logging, and housing development. The grizzly bear, then, and the fisher, and the pronghorn, can be seen as the fulfillment of work done a generation ago to protect habitat, even when the beneficiaries of that habitat were not around to enjoy it.

And in a circular way, these species may well encourage more investment in habitat protection by re-engaging people with the outdoors.

By increasing the biodiversity of a forest, McCord notes, you are “increasing immensely the intellectual excitement” of it. That in turn may help people re-engage with Seattle’s wild backyard, which can seem a world away from the traffic jams of South Lake Union.

“Letting people know they might see a wolverine, or there’s a chance to see a wolverine, that’s going to make the woods and the mountains a much more interesting and enticing place to be,” says Werntz. “We’ve made good decisions in how we manage the habitat in a way that makes room for species like the fisher. This is sort of the natural outcome to that.”

Seattle Weekly News Editor Daniel Person received a prestigious Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalism for his reporting on the return of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park. He’s seen only one grizzly bear in his life—a boar in full sprint across a scree field in the Scapegoat Wilderness.

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