Few West Virginians will ever see a fisher, but chances are they’ve been closer to one than they think.
The pint-sized carnivores have been found from Berkeley County in the state’s Eastern Panhandle to Jackson County along the Ohio River, and from Preston County in the north to McDowell County in the south.
They’ve made quite a comeback. At one time, after the wholesale logging boom of the early 20th century, not a single fisher could be found anywhere in the Mountain State.
“Fishers disappeared in West Virginia due to habitat destruction and unregulated trapping,” said Rich Rogers, the Division of Natural Resources’ furbearer project leader. “When you have a forest species and no forests for those animals to live in, that’s what happens.”
In the late 1960s, with the state’s forests regrown and starting to mature, DNR officials decided to bring fishers back. They obtained 23 from states in Northern New England and placed them in Tucker and Pocahontas counties.
Not all West Virginians welcomed the reintroduction.
“Oh, there were horror stories,” Rogers said. “Some people thought they were some kind of demon animal, that they’d make their way into people’s bedrooms and steal babies.”
In reality, fishers feed mostly on squirrels, chipmunks and birds. Rogers said they’ll also scavenge an occasional deer carcass, and — rarely — kill a young fawn.
More impressive, however, is the 8- to 9-pound fisher’s talent for killing porcupines that can weigh four times that much.
“It’s not pretty,” Rogers said. “A fisher will latch onto a porcupine’s face and chew until the porcupine dies. Once it’s dead, the fisher flips it over and goes in through the belly, where there are no quills. Fishers are the only predators that will mess with porcupines.”
The fishers reintroduced to West Virginia adapted readily to the state’s woodlands. Slowly, steadily, their numbers increased as they spread across the countryside. Rogers estimated today’s population at 1,000 to 2,000 individuals.
Surrounding states have benefited from West Virginia’s reintroduction effort.
“They’re seeing them in Maryland, Virginia and southern Pennsylvania now, all from our stockings,” Rogers said.
Usually when biologists reintroduce a species to an area, they declare the animals off-limits to hunting or trapping, at least for a while.
For example, the elk recently reintroduced to southwestern West Virginia are protected by law. River otters, reintroduced in the 1980s, were protected until just five years ago.
“When we brought in fishers, we didn’t protect them,” Rogers said. “We set a limit of one fisher per trapper per year. We had fishers taken by trappers that very first year, but not enough to be any danger to the population as a whole. We could do that with fishers because they’re a lot harder to trap than otters.”
Today, trappers take 80 to 110 fishers a year. “A lot of guys catch them in their fox or coon sets,” Rogers said. “They don’t seem to be skittish about human scent around traps. The hard part is figuring out where they’re likely to be. Each fisher has a home range of 8 to 10 square miles. It might take an individual several months to work its way around its territory to where you’ve set your traps.”
Not much attention has been paid to fishers since they arrived in West Virginia some 45 years ago, but Rogers said that’s about to change.
“We’re going to look at the genetics of the fishers we have here in the state,” he explained. “We started [our population] with a limited number of individuals. We’ll be looking to see if we have genetically distinct populations in different parts of the state.”