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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Back From the Brink of Extinction

Schafer illustrations of "vanished" Michigan mammals
The fisher, also called pekan, is remarkable for its size — length about two feet, plus another foot of tail.
The quote above is from Michigan Wildlife Sketches: The Native Mammals of Michigan’s Forests, Fields and Marshes, with text by G.W. Bradt and illustrations by Charles E. Schafer, published in September 1972 by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. It goes on to describe the fisher (Martes pennanti) as “just a big marten, living more on the ground than in the trees,” and weighing from eight up to eighteen pounds. Reading on, we learn that a fisher can and will attack a porcupine — successfully! That is impressive! But next, for someone seeking to make a positive identification of the stranger chased by her dog on an otherwise calm and quiet Sunday morning, come more discouraging words: 
Fishers formerly were found over most of Michigan, retreating before the axe and trap until they probably disappeared entirely, although there was the possibility a few stragglers might still be present in remote parts of the Upper Peninsula. 
In fact, however, a few fishers were imported from Minnesota and released in Ontonagon County in 1961, so might some have reached the lower peninsula by now? That is, are they "vanished," or aren't they? I asked around among friends, and several reported fisher sightings here in northern Leelanau Township in the last few years.

I consulted another reference, Michigan Mammals, by Rollin H. Baker, published in 1983 by Michigan State University. Baker notes that the fisher was reported in the late 1920s by the Michigan Department of Conservation as “nearly exterminated, with no chance to make a ‘comeback,” then as “practically extinct” in the department's 1933-34 report. Both trapping and habitat destruction combined to bring about the devastation of the Michigan fisher population until the U.S. Forest Service helped in the rehabilitation of their populations, desirable as a check on porcupine numbers.

Baker calls the fisher’s life “rather antisocial,” the males solitary except during courtship and mating. (Is the fisher’s life also “brutish and short”? One wonders.) “There is some evidence that fisher may associate with gray wolves” (scavenging wolf kills is the extent of their “associating”), but the fisher seems to have found interesting primarily for its role as a killer of porcupines:
Most noteworthy is the predator-prey association developed between the fisher and the porcupine. In fact, Powell and Brander (1977) suggest that their adaptive relationships have been environmentally selected in order that successful coexistence occurs, with depressed porcupine populations causing fisher to depend on other food sources….
Meat forms most of the diet of this “formidable … woodland carnivore.” And any mammal that can tackle and kill a porcupine definitely deserves to be called “formidable,” we can probably all agree.

Schafer shows fisher with its eye on a porcupine

My fisher sighting was startling, as the large, dark grey mammal streaked across open ground with my old dog in hot pursuit. (Luckily, Sarah obeys very well the “Leave it!” command. I would not want her tangling with a fisher! ) I didn’t get a good look at the stranger’s face but had time to take in the size of the animal and its beautiful coat — “thick, luxuriant, glossy but fairly coarse compared to that of the marten,” according to Baker. But no photograph! I was sitting quietly with morning coffee and book when fisher and dog hove into view. 

So there it was — my first and possibly only lifetime sighting of a fisher in the wild, exciting enough that a coyote in the driveway six days later seems barely worth mentioning. But now the Artist proposes a name for a character, one I envision as a meat-eating loner detective: Martin Fischer. I mean, we have to disguise the name a little bit, don’t we?

As for my old reference books, they may underestimate today's fisher population, but they still offer a wealth of information. 


BB-Idaho said...

Wow! A hole-in-one for rare animal sighting!
(I would trade the four elk in my backyard the other morning)

P. J. Grath said...

I know, I know! But I'd be pretty excited to see an elk -- or even a moose -- in the wild, BB. Finally did see a bear in the U.P.