Fishers are becoming more common in New York State
by Joel M. Herrling
Sunday afternoons have become routine for me to walk through the forests of Cayuga County, practicing photography, allowing the mind to wander. As I approached a patch of tall spruce trees with a creek meandering through it, an animal appeared that was unrecognizable. I observed it for a moment before fumbling with the camera, almost dropping it on a large rock protruding from the flowing water. Unfortunately, I was unable to get a photograph of what looked like a large, dark, longhaired member of the weasel family.
Low to the ground with short legs, small ears, and a furry tail, it disappeared into the thicket. While running, the position of its tail above the ground made it resemble a house cat (thus having “cat” in its name). It wasn’t a feline, but an actual weasel. Immediately I ruled out more familiar creatures, mink and black squirrels, both of which I have seen around, but these didn’t match. I had known Martes pennanti or the “fisher cat” was in the region, but had never seen one until now. It was the first time in 39 years I had been able to observe one.
Fortunately, as there were still patches of snow in some parts of the fisher’s travels, I was able to follow the tracks, which showed large, wide feet with five toes on each foot. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website, the fisher has semi-retractable claws that make them well adapted for walking on snow and climbing trees, along with grasping and killing prey. They can rotate their hind feet nearly 180 degrees, allowing a headfirst descent from trees. They are the only known North American mammal that is successful in killing and eating porcupines, leaving behind the quilled hide and some larger bones. They also eat a variety of mammals and birds, along with beechnuts, acorns, apples, and berries.
Found exclusively in North America, fishers inhabit forested and semi-forested land, preferring extensive, closed-canopy forests. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, due to over-exploitation and loss of forested habitat, they experienced a decline in population. Reintroduction programs have helped restore populations, along with regulation of trapping opportunities and the initiation of reforestation programs. They have begun to adapt to the farm country of the Finger Lakes Region.
Fishers can be found throughout approximately 26,000 square miles of forested habitat within the northern, eastern, and southeastern parts of New York State. Recently they have begun to return to the Southern Tier of Central and Western New York, as some sightings and road kills have been reported. After five years of having trail cameras at my property in Cayuga County, this was the first year I captured an image of one. The males weigh between 7 and 13 pounds, and are 35 to 47 inches long. The females are between 3 and 7 pounds and 30 to 37 inches. They have been known to travel over hundreds of miles within a few weeks to meet dietary requirements.
Fishers reach sexual maturity in their first year of life, with reproduction peaking in late March, and breeding may occur as late as May. An average litter size is 2 to 3 young; they are born partially furred with closed eyes and ears, essentially helpless at birth. Weaning occurs within 8 to 10 weeks, and dispersal of young may occur by their fifth month, as interfamilial aggression increases with the onset
Fishers use a variety of structures for year-round denning purposes, such as the cavities found in older trees or rocky outcrops, hollow logs, brush piles, and underground burrows. Dens used for birthing of young are found in hollow sections of trees, usually high above the ground for protection.
Leading a solitary lifestyle except for brief periods during the breeding season, fishers have been found to be active at any time during the day or night. The males have larger home ranges than females, and their territories seldom overlap that of other males, which suggests territoriality between the sexes.
Fishers have no natural enemies, except human trapping, and natural mortality remains largely undocumented. Trapper harvests and automobile collisions account for the majority of deaths across their range. A few species of tapeworm, intestinal roundworm, and flatworm have been identified in fishers, but the health effects are minimal. Rabies and distemper have been described in fishers in New York State, but are a minor source of mortality in the wild.
It’s great to see the species making a comeback in Cayuga County through conservation efforts. Another reason to keep exploring the wilds of the Finger Lakes Region. For more information, see the state DEC website.
New York State Fisher Management Plan
New York State has created a Fisher Management plan for 2016-2025. There are two goals of this plan
• Maintain or enhance fisher populations in all areas of the state where suitable habitat exists
• Provide for the sustainable use and enjoyment of fishers by the public
To see the entire management plan visit https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/nyfishermgmtplan.pdf