Six fishers — cat-sized, furry carnivores related to weasels — were released Wednesday morning into the North Cascades near the national park visitor center in Newhalem.
A crowd of about 120 — including officials and media — gathered along the River Loop Trail to see the fishers bound away into their new home.
The release was met with excitement and a few tears from those closely involved with the effort to reintroduce the animals into North Cascades forests where they’ve been absent for decades.
“It’s not so much about restoring the fisher as it is about them being a part of this ecosystem, this community,” North Cascades National Park Service Complex wildlife biologist Jason Ransom said. “To welcome them back here is a big deal.”
The release was the latest in an ongoing effort to restore fishers throughout the state, according to a news release from the National Park Service.
The release was also the first in the North Cascades, where partner agencies plan to release about 80 of the animals from now through 2020.
Fishers disappeared from Washington in the mid-1900s due to being overharvested for their furs and the loss of habitat due to logging and development, according to state and federal agencies.
Despite protection since 1934, when rules were established regarding fur trapping, the fisher has not returned on its own, according to the state Department of Fish & Wildlife.
Scott Schuyler of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe said he was thrilled not only to see the fishers released, but to see the animal for the first time as each ran from a wooden crate into the woods.
“We need to continue to work together to bring back all the species that we’ve lost,” he said.
Fishers were listed by Fish & Wildlife as endangered in the state in 1998 and are unique to North America, according to the recovery plan the state adopted in 2006.
Fur trapping records show that fishers were once common in the Cascades, on the Olympic Peninsula and in the southwest and northeast areas of the state.
Federal, state and partner agencies are working to bring the animals back to their historic range in Washington.
Those released Wednesday were captured in Alberta, Canada, and evaluated by veterinarians at the Calgary Zoo.
Clément Lanthier, president and CEO of the zoo, came for the release.
“What we are doing today, this is community-based conservation ... to make our backyard a better place,” he said.
It was no small feat to get the fishers from near Edmonton, Alberta, to Newhalem. Representatives from the National Park Service, Fish & Wildlife, Conservation Northwest and the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe said it took many partners to work through the logistics.
“A guy in the U.S. had to pay a guy in the woods in Canada cash for an animal — that doesn’t just happen,” Ransom said.
He said the Alberta Trappers’ Association helped capture the fishers.
Fish & Wildlife mid-size carnivore biologist Jeff Lewis said once at the Calgary Zoo the fishers were examined to determine overall health and likelihood of survival in a new habitat.
The fishers also underwent minor surgery to place under the skin of each animal a radio transmitter about the size of a shotgun shell, Lewis said. The transmitters will allow wildlife biologists to track the movement of the animals.
Monitoring of fishers that have been released in other parts of the state has shown success, with many producing young, according to Fish & Wildlife.
Between 2008 and 2010, 90 fishers were released in Olympic National Park. Between 2015 and 2017, 69 fishers were released in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and in Mount Rainier National Park in the South Cascades.
State wildlife biologists have documented several new generations emerging in Olympic National Park, according to Fish & Wildlife.
Lewis said the births of two fishers have also been documented in the South Cascades, and he expects there are more offspring that haven’t been spotted.
The dozens of fishers released have also had good survival rates.
“By and large we’re seeing somewhere between 50 and 90 percent survival,” Lewis said.
Over the next two years, several more groups of fishers from Alberta will be released in the North Cascades, including in the national park complex and the neighboring Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
“If we can get them restored here, we will have gotten them restored to the three main areas of their historical range (in the state), and that would be a huge conservation win,” Lewis said.