SEATTLE — A weasel-like predator that disappeared from Washington state decades ago will soon be reintroduced to the Cascade Mountains.
State and federal wildlife officials are preparing to re-establish fishers into Mount Rainier and North Cascades national parks and surrounding areas as part of an effort to restore the state-listed endangered animals to their previous range.
The dark brown forest-dwelling mammals historically were found throughout much of the forested areas of the state. But they declined in numbers due to overtrapping in the 1800s and early 1900s, and the loss of forest habitats. Fishers are believed to have disappeared from the state in the mid-1900s.
In coming weeks, a team of wildlife officials will take fishers captured from British Columbia and relocate them to the southwest Cascades, including Mount Rainier National Park and Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The plan is to reintroduce 40 fishers a year for two years.
If all goes well, officials will begin relocating additional fishers to the northwest Cascades, as early as fall 2017. Each region would get 80 animals, for a total of 160.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service, Conservation Northwest and others are leading the effort.
"We have a chance to correct a thing that we didn't manage correctly a long time ago. We can restore a species," said Jeffrey Lewis, a WDFW wildlife biologist.
The first fisher reintroduction in the state was done in Olympic National Park in 2008. About 90 fishers were reintroduced over several years, and those animals have successfully reproduced.
Last May, park officials approved a plan to partner with the state to re-establish the fisher to the two national parks. The goal is to rebuild the population so fishers can survive and reproduce on their own, as well as to improve the ecosystem.
"When biodiversity is lost from an ecosystem, that system is less able to withstand change and can become less resilient," said Tara Chestnut, a Mount Rainier park ecologist.
Fishers belong to a family that includes weasels, mink and otters. They eat small mammals, including snowshoe hares, mountain beavers and porcupines, are found only in North America, in low-to-mid elevation canopy forests.
The state is getting animals from British Columbia because they are closely related to fishers that were historically in Washington, and it's a healthy population close to the state, Chestnut said.
Trapping season began Nov. 1 in British Columbia. Chestnut, Lewis and others are waiting for enough fishers to be captured before traveling north to bring the animals back.
The fishers will be examined to make sure they're healthy and disease-free, and they'll be equipped with radio transmitters so biologists can track them for about two years.
"We will put them in the center of a lot of good habitat," Lewis said.
The first 25 fishers will be relocated in national forest south of Mount Rainier with the final 15 animals to be released within the park. The goal is to relocate them in late fall or early winter to give females time to establish dens.
Fishers were listed by the state as an endangered species in 1998. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last fall proposed listing the West Coast population of fishers as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.