It is Monday as I check the website (seaturtle.org) that allows me access to our Argos data. I go through each tag number, which represents a different male fisher, to see where his travels have taken him and to check his general activities. Today as I get to male 18308 I immediately notice that his collar has been in the same place for 3 days, and the dreaded “0” is unambiguous in the activity data. Those two facts clearly indicate that the male is dead or at the very best has dropped his collar. Tomorrow someone has to go find out which one it is.
Tomorrow (Tuesday) I am scheduled to attend a meeting in Yreka where I will update folks about the translocations’ progress at the Interior Fisher Working Group (a collection of folks interested in fisher biology and management in California and Oregon). Since I’ve committed myself to attend the meeting Kevin volunteers to go find the collar or a dead fisher (or both). I tell him approximately where the collar’s signal is coming from and give him the best locations from our recently downloaded data. I convince myself, as I always do, that all we will find is a collar and no signs that the male is dead.
For most of Tuesday I don’t think much about what Kevin will find. At the meeting I tell everyone that we have documented only 7 fisher mortalities on the project but that this figure might change by the end of today. For most everyone this is a trivial fact and probably impacts the overall tone of my update very little. At about 1 pm I start looking at my phone every few minutes hoping to see a text message that says something about finding only a collar. By five I still haven’t heard anything, and at a quarter to 7 – just before we leave Yreka headed home – I call to see what has been found. The response I get needs no clarification. He is dead.
On the ride home I think about male 18308. I captured him on the EKSA in early 2010 in the first year of the translocation. While he was in the captive facility that year I took to calling him “Big John” primarily just because he was one of the bigger males we had. He was the second male that was released on Stirling and he stayed relatively close to his release location. We tracked him successfully in each year of the study. He was the first fisher we recaptured in late 2010, and he always seemed to be amenable to recapture after that. It’s always exiting to capture our fishers and see how they have done since we last handled them. 18308 was the most exciting to me because he was always the biggest fisher we had (he weighed in at 5.8 kg in February of 2011) and I always wondered how big he would be the next time. We found him at the den trees of females in each year of the study and sometimes at multiple trees in the same year. Though we cannot yet be definitive I suspect he fathered kits in all three breeding seasons he was on Stirling. He was 6 years old at the time of his death which is pretty good for a wild male fisher. Currently, we don’t know what caused his death and it may take several weeks to learn this – we may never know. I tracked 18308 for longer than any on the project.
As biologists we probably feel, or at least I do, as though there is some connection to the animals we study. Let’s face it, if I didn’t enjoy working with, and learning about animals, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. At best, the animals are indifferent and at worst they have a deep resentment towards me as I trap and follow them around in their daily lives. Strangely, it is the thousands of hours of effort spent in trapping, handling, and following these animals that causes their deaths to affect me. I enjoy working with and learning about fishers, and each one has taught me something important about what they do and how they live. When they die we lose the opportunity to learn something new about that individual and the species. Maybe just as importantly, we lose the experiences and enjoyment that comes from that learning. I learned a lot from 18308.