Author: Sjoholm, Barbara
Date published: January 1, 2010
The fir needles are like some ancient Aramaic lettering on the snow crust, spelling out a text I can't read in waking life. The soft strands of lichen on the fir and cedar send off melt-water sparks on this rare sunny January day in Olympic National Park. Some feet away, down a bank of shiny sword fern, rush the frigid gray-green waters of the North Fork Skokomish River. After weeks of snow and ice storms in the Pacific Northwest we're all a little giddy with the sunshine.
About fifty of us, mostly wildlife biologists from state and national agencies in Washington and Oregon, representatives from the Skokomish Tribal Nation and Conservation Northwest, along with a handful of family members like me, are gathered here today, ready to capture with cameras the wild, leaping instant when captivity will become freedom.
The celebrity to whom our paparazzi gazes are directed is crouched, invisible, in a plywood box at our feet, one of five wooden cases that arrived here at a campground near Lake Cushman, up a winding road from the Hood Canal, in the back of a covered pick-up. The inhabitants of the cases are fishers, a medium-sized member of the mustelidae family, weasel-like carnivores, sleek and muscular, with rounded ears, snub noses, and excellent teeth. They've been gone from the Olympic Peninsula for over seventy years. Now, thanks to some of these people standing around in thick jackets and heavy boots, the fishers are returning. Not the same fishers, obviously, who were hunted almost to extinction here in Washington, as in most places around the United States, for their beautiful pelts. Not even their many-times-great-grandchildren. These are fisher cousins, who until very recently were living up in British Columbia. Taken by well-paid trappers to holding pens, inoculated, fed tasty meals of mountain beaver and deer, the fishers were then packed into nifty two-room cases and driven here. Fifteen fishers are scheduled to be released today, five here on the east side of the Olympic Peninsula, and two other groups of five each on the west side, at the Queets and Hoh Rivers.
There are, in the human way, some short speeches; then one of the biologists, Jeff Lewis, directs the first pair of volunteers to get on either side of the crate. He gives them instructions on how to slide open the front door. We all lean forward, cameras at the ready. The first fisher is a female, one of three females to be released. Two local journalists are here with video equipment on tripods. Nothing happens.
Lewis suggests, "Breathe on her through the net mesh on top. They don't like being breathed on." Silence and no movement from inside the box. "Just knock slightly on the back end," he adds.
Lewis, who works for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, has been one of those most responsible for reintroducing the fisher back into the Olympic Peninsula. Along with Kurt Jenkins of the U.S. Geological Survey and Patti Happe and Dave Manson at Olympic National Park, Lewis has been working for years on this project. Nothing happens in government agencies like theirs without a lot of pages of biological assessments and environmental impact research. It was the work of a relatively few trappers to rid the Olympics of the fisher in the first place, but the work of many dedicated specialists to bring it back.
Still, compared to reintroducing the gray wolf, the other mammal killed off here in its native habitat, the fisher reintroduction has caused little controversy in the Northwest. What's not to like about the solitary fisher? Fishers don't run in packs, dig under fences, kill cattle, and generally frustrate the most sympathetic rancher. Although visitors are flocking in the thousands to see the re-introduced wolves at Yellowstone and most Washingtonians, when polled, said they'd like to see the gray wolf back in our state, opinions remain divided, leaning to the worried, on the wolf question.
Not so with the fisher. In fact, most people are uncertain what a fisher is. One friend, when I told her I was going to see a fisher release, said, "Like- salmon?"
"No, not fish - fisher. A weasel-like carnivore."
"Oh. A weasel. ... Is that a good thing?"
Even when the fishers were more numerous on the peninsula there weren't terribly many. Yet, like every living thing they played a role in the Northwest ecosystem. The results of the fisher extirpation in Oregon became obvious early. Without the fisher, who attacked porcupines by biting them on their noses, and then rolled the poor spiky creatures over when dead for a nice meal of quill-less belly meat, the porcupines multiplied and thrived in our logged-over and replanted evergreen forests. Porcupines, as the conifer-savvy can tell you, are great gourmands when it comes to fir seedlings. Even the timber companies, not always models of ecological thinking, were eager to have the fisher back in Oregon.
In the Olympics we don't have many porcupines. There are other reasons for reintroducing the fisher. Without the gray wolf, it had become clearer that Roosevelt elk were increasing and some suspected that in their foraging along streams and rivers, the elk had shifted the balance of riparian habitat. No one knew exactly the role of the fisher in the past ecosystem, though clearly by eating smaller prey they had a significant niche. Now the biologists had a modest chance to find out what that niche was. To begin again and, with a combination of human hubris and humility, to rectify a mistake. Words such as stewardship and responsibility were used, especially by Olympic National Park, where the mission was to "provide permanent protection to indigenous wildlife" and the official Fisher Reintroduction Plan spoke of the indigenous species as "a component of wilderness and the wilderness experience."
You don't find words like guilt and redemption in scientific réintroduction plans, but what else could explain the fact that fifty people have made their way to the this campground on a Saturday when they could be doing a million other things, to be present at an event that would take but a little time considering how much preparation had gone into it. I suspect, like most everyone here, I've come to say I'm sorry as well as good-bye and good-luck.
Suddenly there's a scrabbling sound and a streak of dark brown fur makes a run for it. Because the ground is covered with snow and the route away from the river and half circle of madly photographing people leads uphill, the fisher streaks for perhaps ten or fifteen seconds in plain view before disappearing into the trees. You can see she's built for running, with those powerful back legs. She doesn't look back.
F034 (for that's her less than euphonious name) is now on her own, though she'll probably be followed, mostly from the sky, for a year or two. As long as she keeps her collar on and the batteries last, the biologists will be able to keep track of her through aerial telemetry. In a week she may be miles away. She may circle lakes and cross streams and ridges, travel up to watersheds and downstream to the mouths of rivers. She might get as far as the Duckabush or Quinault Rivers or head overland. Just as her cousins, F/M 0001-18 did last winter, F034 will be searching for a home range and a good denning site, in which to give birth in a couple of months. The males released today will be looking for females to mate with shortly after the females give birth. After which they may move around at their leisure, down to the more southern reaches of the peninsula- where one was tracked near Ocean Shores, a popular vacation spot- or up to the far northwest tip of Cape Flattery.
Today wasn't my first release. In early March of 2008, 1 was invited along with another group of agency personnel and other wellwishers to a spot at the end of Whiskey Bend Road, in the northern sector of the park, not far from the upper Elwha River, to see one of the first batches of fishers from B.C. released to the wild. Just like today it was accidentally, anomalously sunny, though with no snow, so it was harder to see the flight of the fishers. Those particular fishers shot out of their wooden cases, no questions asked, no hesitating, and with their sleek mahogany fur they merged within seconds into the dark underbrush of the forest. It all went faster than I expected. It was only afterwards, when the first reports began to come in on the manifold paths that the fishers had taken over the ridges and rivers around the Elwha, that I began to follow their stories.
M005 was a mover, who traveled from the Upper Hoh River on the western side of the peninsula over to the Skokomish River on the east and then from Lake Cushman back over to the west side, to Lake Pleasant. So was M011, who eventually logged sixty miles over six months and ended up on the Makah Tribe's reservation in Neah Bay. In late October, the wildlife biologists tracking M011's movements from their small plane high above noted that his transmitter was beginning to malfunction. Rob McCoy, a tribal biologist, trapped the fisher and helped fit him with a new collar before re-releasing him in the same area. As of the last reports, M011's was now established on the reservation.
But it was the female fishers who got my attention. F016, whom we'd seen set off on her travels March 2, had her signal picked up four days later at Lake Mills, a reservoir created by the damming of the Elwha. A month later she was tracked down by the south fork of the Hoh River. F003 was a great traveler as well, running thirteen miles in the first two weeks after her release. F004, for a few weeks at least, seemed content just to carry on for a while on the outskirts of Port Angeles. But in mid-June, five days after being found outside Port Angeles, she was tracked thirty miles south into the upper Queets drainage.
Fisher females, like many in the weasel family, have the enviable trait of delayed implantation. They mate soon after giving birth to two or three kits, one of the few times the mothers leave their blind and helpless newborns for the first two months. The young fishers usually stay with their mothers for about eight or nine months; by the time they are a year old, the offspring have established their own home ranges. It would be harder to track the young, given the difficulty of locating the dens and the fact that the kits weren't born with radio transmitters. Nevertheless the biologists had chosen a preponderance of females to release and were fairly certain some at least would give birth and raise fitters.
The eventual goal for the three-year reintroduction process was to create a self-sustaining population on the peninsula. Some of these fishers or their children or grandchildren might then be available for homesteading in the Cascade Mountains on the other side of Puget Sound. No one knows for sure how large a self-sustaining population might be, but to give the fishers a fighting chance, one hundred animals from British Columbia were scheduled to be introduced to different sectors of Olympic National Park.
I wondered about F003 and her far-flung nocturnal travels. Was she still just looking for the right apartment with a good view and some closet space (fishers generally den up in the hollows of large trees and snags) or was she an adventurous spirit who'd never quite get around to having a litter? I could relate to that. Did she feel the wide world was to be explored for a good long while before settling on a home range?
The wildlife biologists had been taking turns being flown in helicopters over the peaks, ridges, valleys, and rivers of Olympic National Park and its adjacent lands, telemetry antenna in hand, trying to pick up signals from far below. These signals were then entered into a computer program that translated the GPS points into coordinates with lines between them that showed the movements of the fishers. The fishers were moving through a landscape of basalt and shale, Oregon grape, vine maple, and salai, through forests and river edges, a full three-dimensional, sensory life that was nothing like the twodimensional trajectories we saw on a map, a map that was available on my computer screen to look at or be printed out. The biologists also offered updates of the fisher movements around the peninsula on a website dedicated to the fisher release, but it was the colorful maps of the Olympic Peninsula and especially the blue and red and orange and green lines that indicated the paths of different fishers that most captivated me.
I wasn't sure why. Perhaps it was because while looking at the maps, I felt I began to look at the home range where I lived in a very different way and to envy the fishers their speed and spirit. I imagined the females tearing through the under-story of the old growth forest canopies in a way that I never could. I could never travel at night in the wilderness. I could never travel alone. I tried to imagine what drove F003 onward and how it felt to be up in a tree or on a ridge with the huge night sky above her, snow on the ground. Solitary or a single mother. Secretive. Nocturnal. Claiming the entire interior of the peninsula as her own again.
To understand a little of the geography of the Olympic Peninsula, imagine a handkerchief, white in the center, otherwise patterned with dark and light green and touches of blue, and with a stained and muddy hem, balanced on the wand of a magician. The peak of that handkerchief is Mt. Olympus, almost 8,000 feet high. Everything else - a dozen major river systems, countless streams and lakes, the hard basalt peaks, valleys scoured by glaciers, rivers with wide gravel and sand borders - ripple down from the tip of the wand, with Olympic National Park in the center. The park is roughly circular, though its domain also encompasses a narrow streak of protected land seventythree miles long next to the sandy, log-strewn beaches of the Pacific and another along much of the Queets River system. Through the park there are trails, some originally made by Indians and trappers, but no roads other than longer or shorter spurs that lead to trailheads or reservoir lakes. You can't drive from one side of the park to the other; you have to drive around.
Teddy Roosevelt first granted the interior of the peninsula the protected status of a National Monument in 1 909 and Franklin Roosevelt signed the legislation to make it a National Park in 1938. Most of the park's 1,400 square miles are a biological reserve, giving the region further protected status, and in 1981 it became a World Heritage Site. The Olympic Mountains create their own weather, halting the storms off the Pacific and dumping them down as rain on the western side of the Peninsula. The west side can get twelve to fourteen feet of rain a year, which creates the temperate rainforest along the coastline. The northeast comer, in the rain shadow, gets only around sixteen inches a year.
The Olympic Peninsula is bounded on three sides by water: to the west, the Pacific Ocean; to the north, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, leading to Puget Sound; to the east, Hood Canal. Around the perimeter of the peninsula lies what's often called a patchwork of private and public lands. The latter include forests and watersheds managed, often with conflicting goals and methods, by a variety of state and government agencies, some of which monitor and restore the region and some of which continue to profit from it. Commercial thinning still goes on in the government forests, but so do habitat conservation, species monitoring, and education. The private lands are owned by a mix of tribal nations, timber companies, and individuals.
Patchwork suggests a colorful quilt, but mostly it means that when you drive along 101 in what is one of the world's most beautiful bioregions, with its great Sitka spmces and intense under-story of fems, mosses, lichens in a hundred shades of wet green, you also encounter post-apocalyptic patches of gray-brown slash or look up at badly shaved hillsides where only irregular stubble shows there was once a forest teeming with untold species. When Captain George Vancouver sailed north to Cape Flattery and then east around our peninsula in 1 792, he and his men would have passed a forest thick as night, as far as the eye could see. After more than a century of logging, the northern belt of the peninsula is mainly farmland with some second- or thirdgrowth forests, home to farmers and fishermen, with a growing number of retirement communities and big box stores in the rain-shadow flatlands of Sequim. The only city is Port Angeles, with a population of 17,000, a faltering economy once built on logging and shipping. Other towns, like Port Townsend, where I Uve, scrape along with a mixture of working people, retirees, and idealists and artists of every stripe.
Forks, on the west side, is the largest town and was also once a logging mecca. It has the distinction of being one of the wettest burgs in the United States, with an annual rainfall of 121 inches. Forks was almost forgotten until Stephenie Meyer set her Twilight series there; now the Dew Drop Inn is always packed and even the Thriftway sells vampire-related trinkets. There are tribal lands, too, most along the west and north coasts, some very small and some with many square miles. The Hoh, Quileute, Quinault, Ozette, Makah, Lower Elwha, Jamestown S'Klallam, and Skokomish peoples are part of a great network of Northwest tribes who have lived for centuries along the coastlines and mouths of rivers.
For all the fragmentation at the edges of our green and white handkerchief, the fishers were coming to live in a landscape more intact than most places in North America, with most of what they needed in terms of habitat: plentiful food in the form of rodents and smaller mammals, water, and the canopy cover of late-successional forests. This first year, as the biologists watched the little points of life travel around the peninsula, they didn't know what to expect. Where would the fishers settle and when? What the biologists found surprised them at times. The fishers didn't stay inside Olympic National Park, where everything was pristine as it could be and still an intact bio-region. They went into the enormous and still fairly protected forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service that surround the park and the less protected areas owned and managed by Washington Department of Natural Resources. They passed by campgrounds and crossed over human-made trails; they dipped down into the large Quinault reservation and the tiny Ozette and Hoh tribal lands. Most likely they skirted the slash-piled lands where giant timber corporations and small locally owned logging companies alike had recklessly, ruthlessly clear-cut acres of forest.
Not all of the fishers made it through the next months. M005, the intrepid fisher who set off in February of 2008, was killed crossing Highway 101. F008 was also killed, probably by a bobcat. Other fishers disappeared from sight for weeks at a time. M009's radio transmitter failed. When each fisher carries partial responsibility for reestablishing a gene pool and re-occupying a once-native habitat, such deaths and disappearances, while not unexpected, are to be mourned. Not only from the scientific point of view but from the moral.
We had set free an animal we ourselves had caged and called it a homecoming, an act that craved success to feel like absolution. Who was to say how the individual fishers viewed their captivity and freedom? Our jubilation when the cage door went up, our computer printouts of their tracked movements, my own poring over the maps and learning to know the Olympic Peninsula through the wide-ranging travels of fishers- all that was nothing to the fisher running from us into a world filled with danger and possibility.
In June F004 had her picture snapped in a cedar snag, a photograph taken with a remote digital camera. She looks wary, perhaps indignant. F003 was also photographed, in the fall of 2008, in an area she'd begun to frequent. Like many immigrants, the fishers found a place that was unfamiliar and needed to be made home-like. The fishers were set loose quickly and had to find their feet, without instructions. The language was ancient but forgotten. Their children would grow up speaking it, but it was still one we humans would never understand, one we might so easily misunderstand.
Any animal can be a lens through which we learn to view the natural world anew. Just as any animal can bear the burden of human need and hope. I've been following the flight of the fishers for the last year. Now another cycle of guilt and good wishes begins as the no-doubt terrified fisher gathers her courage to set out into her oldnew world. We humans, metaphor-makers all, choose to see this as a second chance.
"Breathe," says Jeff Lewis to the next pair of volunteers who take up stations on either of the wooden case and lift the door. "Breathe into the box."
And we do.
Barbara Sjoholm's most recent book is The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland (Counterpoint, 2007). She lives in Port Townsend, Washington.