Porcupine Nemesis Becomes Environmental Champion

blog post photo

source: Tom Murray

Okay, you’re fascinated with fierce wild animals. Here’s one that’s not just ferocious, it’s tear-your-face-off ferocious. If you’re a porcupine, that is. Meet the fisher, AKA Martes pennanti, a furry, long-bodied predator that’s a member of the extended weasel family. They’re found across a wide swath of the northern U.S., from Maine to northern California and the Pacific Northwest.  Fishers grow to as much as 16 inches in length and seven pounds in weight, but don’t let that lack of stature fool you. They’re tough little guys who will eat anything they can get a hold of, from squirrels to birds, and they’re one of the few animals capable of killing a porcupine, a creature that most other predators won’t dare attack because of its sharp quills. They accomplish this by tactics that, well, Matt “the Terror” Serra couldn’t get away with the UFC. As a recent Los Angeles Times article recently explained:

Fishers attack porcupines in the face, then go for their bellies, striking so quickly that the quilled tails have no time to lash back. “It basically eats the porcupine’s face off,” said Reginald Barrett, a UC Berkeley biologist. “The fisher is like greased lightning.”

In some places, fishers have been driven from their shrinking wild habitat into suburban areas, where they quite understandably see household pets as a nice meal. As the New York Times reported back in 2008:

Last summer, Kerry Beaudry heard yelping from her German shepherd, Holly, and went outside to investigate. What she found still gives her chills. A small, mangy creature was on top of Holly, digging its claws into the scruff of her neck and gnawing at her face.

“I had never seen anything like it,” Ms. Beaudry recalled. “I didn’t know what it was. It kind of looked like a fox. But it was very, very ratty looking and had fangs and claws. It was creepy looking, but not that big.

blog post photo

source: Tom Murray

Fishers generally don’t go after humans, though it has been known to happen on rare occasions. If you tangle with one, be sure to watch your toes. As the NYT reports:

Louise Scheuerman of Scotia, N.Y., was taking out the trash one day in February when a fisher jumped out of her garbage can, followed her into the garage and attacked her feet. Ms. Scheuerman beat off the fisher with a fire extinguisher, ran inside and called the police, who tracked the fisher in the snow. They shot it, and the animal tested positive for rabies.

In fairness to fishers, we humans arguably deserve to have our feet bitten by them. Hunters, who coveted fishers’ lustrous, chocolate-brown fur, nearly wiped them out, and clear-cut logging has decimated their habitat.

Today, some states and Canadian provinces list the fisher as endangered. According to the LAT article, biologists estimate that there may be as few as 1,500 fishers left in California.

Nevertheless, the federal government still only classifies the fisher as a candidate species, one that’s rare enough to be considered endangered but which is given no legal protection. Reportedly, there are about 250 other such animals and plants who’ve been languishing in similar regulatory limbo, some of them for decades.  Thus, the Center for Biological Diversity, a coalition of conservation groups, has seized upon the fisher as a poster child for the problems with slowness of the government’s species protecting mechanism.  The center recently filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in an attempt to force the agency to protect the fisher. As the LAT noted:

Environmentalists acknowledge the fisher was chosen in part for public relations reasons. Other waiting-list species are not as suited to stardom; some are so obscure they have only Latin names. By contrast, the fisher “is a neat animal,” acknowledged Noah Greenwald, endangered-species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

I might choose an adjective other than “neat” to describe a diminutive face-ripping predator, but Greenwald raises an important point. If we’re going to preserve ecosystems, it’s not just the cool, fascinating, high-profile animals that we need to protect. But if the fisher can strike a blow for biodiversity with its reputation as the bantamweight champion of the forest, it’s all good.