Killing the Holy Grail: Fisher, wolverine trapping continues

Pine marten – USFWS photo

Last autumn, on a remote forest road in Montana’s northern Bitterroot Mountains, I saw my first fisher. The luxuriously-coated, dark brown carnivore–a member of the weasel family–had just caught lunch. As he dragged his prey into the forest, I wished him safe passage through the coming trapping season. A few years earlier I came face-to-face with a pine marten on a high, wild trail in the Tetons. My first and only marten sighting was cause for amazement and gratitude—just the two of us in a deep forest, quietly considering each other. An exquisite least weasel in Yellowstone’s backcountry, a long-tailed weasel rippling through snow on my own property–no doubt about it, the mustelids had, well, weaseled their way into my heart. But for all my considerable time spent in wild, remote places, I’ve yet to encounter a wolverine. What an unforgettable event that will be!

But, just like excrement, trapping happens. Some Montana mustelids (otter, fisher, wolverine) are considered “furbearers” for whom quotas exist; others like the pine marten face unlimited trapping.While it might be true that “the trapping quota for all of western Montana is just seven fishers a year” (according to a recent article in the Missoulian, “Biologists Hunt for Fisher Hair”), we have no idea what percentage of their small population this constitutes. Furthermore, MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) reports that nine were actually trapped this season*—two over quota—and those are only the reported statistics. Trappers have, in the past, caused at least one wolverine study to be scrapped because they killed so many of the research animals; should we trust that each and every “harvest” of a sensitive species is reported?

By their own designation, FWP considers fishers and wolverines “species of concern.” The wolverine has been reviewed for Endangered Species Act listing by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service—and while they were found to warrant listing, they didn’t make the priority cut (“warranted but precluded”). The fisher is currently under review for listing in the Northern Rockies. (Update: Found not warranted for listing. Read here. Update update: Feds to protect wolverine as threatened species) Why are these fragile populations subject to trapping in Montana at all? (Montana is the only state in the lower 48 to allow wolverine trapping.) What science stands behind the decision to trap any of an unknown, dwindling number?

Biologists are attempting to get a handle on just how many fishers inhabit our neck of the woods by snagging their fur. DNA evidence via hair sampling might be changing wildlife biology, as one biologist noted in the Missoulian, but until commercial and recreational trophy trapping is entirely closed for these species, we have no idea what we’re losing in the meantime. Not only is trapping intentionally cruel, but where some species are concerned, it could be robbing us of our wildlife heritage. Again.

At a state commission meeting for Montana FWP a few years ago, fisher and wolverine trapping quotas were on the agenda. Individual activists, grassroots groups, and representatives of the large, national organizations attended; we asked the commission to close trapping entirely for these imperiled species. Trappers, of course, advocated for continued trapping; one of them called the wolverine “the Holy Grail of trapping.” Imagine finding the Holy Grail–and killing it!

Now that I’ve beheld both a pine marten and a fisher, the wolverine is my Holy Grail, too. Yessiree, I’m going for a mustelid grand slam! But when I find my wolverine, I won’t kill her. I won’t remove his genes from a pool whose shallow depth is unknown. I’ll remember that global warming is placing serious, increased pressures on Gulo gulo,who needs deep snow at high elevations well into the spring birthing season.

But back to the fisher. The cash payout for a dead fisher is $42.83 per skin. That’s according to FWP’s 2009 state furbearer program newsletter, the most recent they’ve made available. Fisher by rare fisher, that’s 42 bucks and change in trappers’ pockets. The rest of us—those who appreciate and respect wildlife, those who love ’em alive—are getting robbed, and it’s simply dead wrong.

*The quota status now shows 8 killed.

This post first appeared on the animal law blog, Animal Blawg.

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