Today (December 9th) is a special day for me. Five years ago today I recall walking down a snow covered mountain road holding one end of a wooden box that contained a fisher. Holding the other end of that box was Roger and right beside us walked Richard and Scott – also holding the ends of a box the held a fisher. Our destination was a small clearing in the forest where many of our friends, colleagues, and even members of the media awaited us. More precisely, they waited for the fishers. The two female fishers we carried in those boxes would be the first 2 fishers released as part of our translocation project onto the Stirling district. We placed the boxes near the edge of the clearing and opened the doors and waited, and then we waited a little more. All the humans eagerly waited for the fishers to emerge from those boxes, but the fishers had other ideas. I can’t say I blame them. Having a bunch of beady-eyed humans looking at you can’t be a fun situation for a fisher (or any other creature either I imagine). I suspect we all, especially the members of the media, had a great illusion that the fishers would emerge promptly and slowly, pose for a few pictures, and then saunter away at a leisurely pace while we snapped pictures and looked on in awe. The reality was quite the opposite as both fishers, in their turn, streaked out of their boxes as a flash of brown into this new place they we hoped they could make into a home. Seeing the fishers run off gave a sense of great accomplishment and wonder but also of great responsibility and future hard work. I suppose Scott provided the most sobering perspective of the day (to me anyway) when he simply said “There are now fishers in the northern Sierra”. Yep, there sure were and that meant that we had to keep track of them, study them and also move an additional 38 fishers over the next 2 years.
Two years later on December 9th I was once again standing in a big circle of people waiting for fishers to come out of wooden boxes. Once again the media (see link for one article and some pictures) was there as well as friends and collaborators of the project. The outcome was much the same as fishers sat in the boxes refusing to leave and when they finally did they fled with extreme expediency. We released 2 females and 1 male, and they would be the last of the fishers translocated to Stirling. Not all the releases were met with media attention or lots of people milling around waiting to take pictures. In fact, most fishers were released with just 1 or 2 people looking on and waiting. Personally, I prefer a small release entourage. In all cases, the releases were the easiest part of the whole process.
It might take me an entire book to write about the tremendous effort that it took to get fishers to Stirling. There are myriad stories about trapping, handling, and transporting fishers. There are just as many about long meetings and phone calls where we considered all the risks and benefits and tried to decide the best course of action, and for each story I have the rest of our team might have 20 more. Yet, all those stories and experiences would only tell a small part of the entire story, because there were literally years of planning and discussion that went into developing and creating the project and the collaborations that made it all work. Most of that happening long before I ever even knew about the project. So, while I consider December 9th the birthday of the project we should always remember that it had a very long gestation as well, and that process went without fanfare or appreciation. The days we released fishers, and how those days came to be, are only one part, and perhaps the least important part, of what our project is all about.
On December 10th, 2009, a day after we released the first fishers, Roger and I set out to find them. It was a mixed bag as we found one female within 1 km of the release point and had no luck finding the other. It took a few days, a few weeks actually, but we eventually found the other female. We tracked both of these females, as well as 7 other released in late December and January of 2010, throughout the spring. Both those two females survived and produced kits the first year as did most of the other females we tracked. Since that day we have spent nearly every day for 5 years looking for fishers to understand the specifics of how and where they live and reproduce. Of course, “we” isn’t Roger and I anymore. “We” is now a large number of folks that work, and have worked, in the field collecting data, and without them the project would not continue. It is also all the people behind the scenes and behind desks and telephones, in front of computers, in laboratories, and in many places and roles that make the project continue to work. The project would have failed a long time ago without all those many people and they all deserve a great deal of gratitude and appreciation. We continue looking for fishers and learning about their lives and ability to survive and reproduce on a landscape managed primarily for timber production. We don’t know everything, obviously, and though we’ve made great strides more information, time, and thinking is needed to fully understand the dynamics that drive fisher populations on Stirling. Nevertheless, five years later we know that there are STILL fishers in the northern Sierra Nevada.