Pine marten’s American cousin

SEVEN fisher cats were released into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State on December 3. The three males and four females had been trapped in British Columbia.
Pine marten’s American cousin

The fisher cat is related to our own “cait crainn”, the marten cat or pine marten.

These mustelids are not cats; their nearest and dearest are stoats and otters.

A baseball team became the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, after a name-the-team public appeal. Fishers have as little connection with fish as they have with baseball. They hunt mammals and birds; angling is not their thing. The name may come from “fiche”, a Dutch term for a polecat skin; the black-footed ferret, a cousin of the martens, is known as the polecat in America.

Nor is our name, pine marten, any more appropriate. The marten part is OK; it comes from old German, meaning weasel, but this elusive Irish mammal has no particular grá for pine trees. The mysterious pine marten, living in the dense scrub of Moghane Iron Age fort 15km from where I grew up, had for us children the mystique of the Abominable Snowman.

The fisher cat is bigger than, and lacks the pale bib of, the pine marten. Males weigh up to 2.5kg compared to 1.9kg for our animal. Females are smaller. The fur of both species is brown, silkier in winter. Although they will hunt on the ground, these are expert climbers.

Despite being on opposite sides of the hemisphere, the histories of the fisher and pine marten are remarkably similar. Both survived relentless persecution. The destruction of Irish forests during the 17th century decimated our marten population. The survivors were pursued for their beautiful pelts. Seen as a threat to game stocks, they were trapped and poisoned.

Despite such fearful odds, the species survived. In 1856, William Thompson noted that martens could still be found in every Irish county. A century later, just a few small populations remained in the west of the country.

They held out in the Burren until attitudes towards wildlife began to change.

Nowadays, marten numbers are increasing and the species has spread to all four provinces. This shy creature is losing its fear of people, even visiting garden bird-tables occasionally. Some nest in the attics of occupied houses where, however, they are not always welcome.

The fisher was widely distributed in North America when the first European settlers arrived.

Trapped relentlessly for its fur, it was rendered extinct in the United States, apart from some isolated pockets in Oregon and California. Faced with declining numbers in the wild, fur farmers raised fishers in captivity, as their European counterparts had attempted to do with pine martens.

The schemes failed because martens take such a long time to mature; females start breeding when a year old but the reproductive cycle takes almost a year. Tree-dwelling animals must remain light. Carrying a large litter would make climbing difficult for an expectant mother, so families tend to be small. There are seldom more than three kittens. Mink farming proved to be a more attractive proposition, so the spotlight went off martens.

In the mid-20th century, attitudes towards wildlife changed in America, as they did in Ireland, and the fisher became a protected species. An alleged threat to the population in some areas comes from an unlikely source; illegal marijuana growers put down poison to kill rats. Unfortunately, fishers are among the unintended victims.

The Gifford Pinchot introduction is part of a joint project by the non-profit Conservation Northwest organisation and the US National Parks Service. Up to 80 fishers will be released in the Cascade Mountains area. Animals will carry radio transmitters so that their movements can be logged, telling scientists how they are coping.

The reintroduction of 90 fishers to the Olympic National Park between 2008 and 2010 has been a success, so hopes are high that the new releases will prosper.

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