Expanding fisher populations could mean opportunities

A fisher scampers away after being released into a new area. Similar releases in Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia are behind a growing population in the Keystone State. (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Fishers are proving more adaptable across Pennsylvania than anyone might have guessed 20 years ago.

And that’s leading to more opportunities for trappers.

Could hunters be next?

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is going to at least look into the idea of allowing hunters – most likely using dogs – to pursue fishers in future years.

A look at where fishers are thought to be, and in what concentrations, across Pennsylvania. (PA Game Commission)

A look at where fishers are thought to be, and in what concentrations, across Pennsylvania. (PA Game Commission)

Fishers are a member of the weasel family. Short and furry, with long, lush tails, they prey not on fish, as their name suggests, but squirrels, chipmunks, mice and even porcupines.

Males range from 35 to 48 inches long and weigh 7 to 15 pounds. Females are smaller on average, at 30 to 37 inches and 4 to 9 pounds.

Native to Pennsylvania, they were gone by the dawn of the 20th century.

Reintroductions of the species in West Virginia in 1969, New York in 1979 and Pennsylvania between 1994 and 1998 brought them back, however. And they’re doing well.

Very well, in fact.

Matt Lovallo, chief of the furbearer management section for the commission, said the agency uses a number of methods for estimating fisher populations and distribution.
“They all tell us the same story,” Lovallo said.

Namely, fishers continue to expand numerically and geographically, he said. Once, it was thought that they required large tracts of unbroken forests to thrive.

Recently, however, they’ve been colonizing the southeast, southwest and northwest regions of the state, marching “out of the big woods into suburbia and small suburban woodlots,” Lovallo said.

That’s providing increased opportunities.

The proposed 2018 fisher trapping season – which must get final approval in April to be official – calls for a Dec. 15 to 26 season. Trappers would be allowed one animal per year.

That’s comparable to past years.

What’s new is that biologists are recommending that two new wildlife management units, 4B and 4C, be opened to fisher trapping. That would make 15 of 23 where fishers were legal game.

Other changes could come in future years.

The commission’s 10-year fisher management plan is due to be updated.

“We’ve learned a lot about fisher populations in Pennsylvania in the last 10 years. And so there will be some significant changes in that plan,” Lovallo said. “We’ll be looking at ways to provide more opportunities to take fishers.”

That could mean higher bag limits.

The commission created the fisher trapping season in 2011. Ever since, the harvest limit has been one fisher per trapper per year.

The take has ranged from 126 that first year to a high of 443 in 2014 to 398 in 2017.

“But that is an area that we’ll probably explore thoroughly within the fisher management plan,” Lovallo said. “At what point do we begin to increase bag limits and allow trappers to take more than one fisher in a given season?”

Fisher hunting could also be in the works.

Some hunters – largely those that hunt with dogs – would like a crack at fishers. Only a handful of states and provinces across the Northeast allow for fisher hunting, Lovallo said. Typically, participation and harvest are low.

“I would think it’s fair to say that would not be the case here in Pennsylvania. If we offer a hunting opportunity, there would be a lot of interest, a lot of participation, and a lot of harvest,” Lovallo said.

Whether that fits in with future fisher management remains to be seen.

“So it’s something that we’ll have to explore really thoroughly in that plan,” Lovallo said.

Bob Frye is the Everybody Adventures editor. Reach him at (412) 216-0193 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.