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Pa. fisher population on the rise

| Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007

A lot of wildlife species once all but gone from Pennsylvania have come back over the years.

Coyote populations have exploded. Black bear and turkey numbers have improved dramatically. Eagles and ospreys are back.

Now, you can add fishers to the list.

"We've seen a rather dramatic expansion of fisher populations in recent years," said Matt Lovallo, furbearer biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Sightings, incidental captures of fishers by trappers pursuing other species, and observations of fishers by hunters have all increased, he said. As a result, the commission's still-developing fisher management plan will call for them to eventually be a game species, Lovallo said.

"It should surprise no one that that plan will include fisher seasons," Lovallo said. "Such seasons are liberal and widespread in other states."

Tom Boop of Northumberland County, president of the Game Commission, seemed glad to hear that.

"I'm hearing a lot of concern from sportsmen about fisher predation on squirrels and turkeys," he said.

The Game Commission has radio collars on 22 fishers -- 10 males and 12 females -- on game lands 26 in Cambria County, Lovallo said. He's hoping that project will tell him more about fishers' dietary preferences, he said.

In the meantime, though, he agreed that fishers are very adept at climbing trees and could impact squirrel populations in localized areas. They're capable of taking porcupines, too, though, and will prey on raccoons, goshawks and other birds, a limited number of fawns, and even domestic pets if given the chance.

"Fishers are opportunistic, omnivorous and aggressive," Lovallo said. "We should never underestimate its prowess as a predator in Pennsylvania's forest ecosystems."

Very few things -- other than perhaps bears, coyote or man -- prey on fishers, however, which is why the day when a fisher season will be necessary is fast approaching, Lovallo said.

Fisher facts

Members of the weasel family, dark in color and about the size of house cats -- they stretch between 30 and 47 inches from nose to tail and weigh from four to 12 pounds -- fishers were common in Pennsylvania when the first European settlers arrived. They disappeared when the forests they need to survive were clearcut, however.

They started showing up in Pennsylvania again in the 1970s when migrants from a reintroduction program begun in West Virginia moved north. Pennsylvania released 190 fishers of its own in the northcentral part of the state in 1990.

If there's one species that could suffer from that expansion of fisher populations, it's the bobcat. Both compete for the same prey, so studies have shown that where fishers increase, bobcats can often decrease, Matt Lovallo said.

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