While attending a recent Ohio Wildlife Council meeting, I had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Paul Mechling, who was appointed to the board in 2011. Mechling is a doctor of veterinary medicine in Ashtabula County, where he is also the owner of the 365-acre Snowy Oak Tree Farm near Pierpont.
Mechling has a keen interest in wildlife and has planted more than 140,000 trees, created wetlands and provided food plots for wildlife. He operates Mechling’s Maple Farm, producer of pure Ohio maple syrup, and is also involved with management of a 340-acre family farm near Thornville that produces grain and timber.
He was very excited to share a recent discovery that was made near his Pierpont tree farm: a rather historic landmark in Ohio’s recent natural history. Mechling had documented evidence of a fisher cat that was calling Ashtabula County its home.
The fisher cat moniker actually couldn’t be any less descriptively accurate for this member of the weasel family. It is neither related to any cat, nor does it expressly ever feed on fish. While its larger cousin in the state, the river otter, is quite the angler, the fisher enjoys hunting in the forest canopy and understory.
Fishers have a long, low profile when moving along the ground and average 32 to 40 inches in length, including a tapering, 12- to 16-inch tail — that’s about the same size as a fox.
The legs of a fisher are short and stout, and their feet possess retractable claws to aid in climbing. Their body fur is a dense, glossy, chocolate brown while the fur on the tail, legs and rump is usually black. The fur on the back and shoulders is often grizzled with gold and silver and enhanced by tricolored guard hairs. Males are considerably larger than the females.
Fishers are primarily carnivores, though they’ll eat berries and fruit when available. They hunt rabbits, snowshoe hares, squirrels, raccoons, mice, reptiles, amphibians, insects, carrion, and the occasional wandering housecat. Even though fishers are not fishermen, they will eat dead fish found on the shore. They are also one of the few mammals that prey on porcupines — kind of a sticky expertise.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fishers were virtually eliminated from most American states and eastern Canada, including Nova Scotia. As is the case for most wildlife loss, it was the destruction of habitat that was the cause for the fisher’s disappearance, though unregulated overtrapping may have quickened the population’s decline.
By the 1930s, most states placed restrictions on fisher trapping at about the same time the eastern logging boom was coming to an end. The focus of improving forest management and natural resource protection along with the regrowth of abandoned farmland helped remnant fisher populations to recover in some areas.
So, where did the fishers that Mechling discovered originate? It’s most likely that these roving, solitary carnivores can be attributed to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Their fisher reintroduction effort got started back in 1994, when 22 fishers were relocated from New Hampshire to the Keystone State’s Sproul State Forest in Centre and Clinton counties.
Successful fisher reintroduction efforts have occurred in Idaho, Michigan, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Similar efforts in the western U.S. have been less successful than in the east and have not resulted in significant range expansion for this arboreal weasel.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission had set the possibility of a sustainable harvest as a long-term goal of the project, even during that first relocation of New Hampshire fishers in 1994 as well as with their continued stocking efforts. They were hopeful that the fisher would prosper and expand in this new home.
Just 16 years after the initial reintroduction, biologists concluded the time was right based partly on rapidly escalating roadkills, as well as numbers of fishers caught unintentionally in trappers’ foot hold traps. In 2010, they opened a limited trapping season, much earlier than anyone thought possible.
“We didn’t think it was in the near future at all but, boy, they’ve increased quickly,” said Tom Hardisky, a Pennsylvania Game Commission furbearer biologist. “It’s incredible. It’s almost an exponential growth.”
Interestingly, this situation is very similar to that being experienced with the Ohio bobcat population, a situation which has encouraged our Division of Wildlife to consider a very limited bobcat trapping season due to comparable biological data.
In 1844, John James Audubon used a fisher that was captured north of Harrisburg as the inspiration for his illustration in his book, “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.” Since 1851, his work served as one of America’s best wildlife reference books, giving that fisher a bibliographic immortality.
So, what is the future for the fisher in Ohio? It is likely that, as populations expand in neighboring Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Michigan, the chance of the animal reinhabiting the more heavily forested counties of northeast and southeast Ohio is no longer a question of “if,” but one of time. I, for one, look forward to their return.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife would like you to report any fisher sightings or photographs from your game cameras. To report your observations, you can contact a local wildlife office or you may report online at apps.ohiodnr.gov/wildlife/speciessighting.
“There are some of us who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese or wild flowers is a right as inalienable as free speech.” — Aldo Leopold
Along the way:
A typical May can see 80,000 visitors from across the country come to Magee Marsh Wildlife Area to witness the spectacle of the spring migration. It is listed as one of the top 10 birdwatching spots in the country.
The Ohio Ornithological Society, in cooperation with the Division of Wildlife, will be conducting guided bird walks May 12 and 13 at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. These outings are targeted at novice or new birding enthusiasts.
The walks on May 12 will be held at 8:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 2:30 p.m. and the walks on May 13 will be held at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Walks are limited to 15 participants each and will be filled on a first come, first served basis.
You can register by emailing Julie.email@example.com. Provide your name, phone number, and requested date and time slot. Additional information will be provided upon registration.
Visitors are also reminded that the entrance road to Magee Marsh will be closed from June 1 to Sept. 1 for bridge replacements. During this time, the wildlife area and the Sportsmen’s Migratory Bird Center will not be accessible; however, access to Black Swamp Bird Observatory will not be affected. For updated information about the closure, call 419-898-0960, ext. 42.
• If you want to help fund conservation in Ohio, you can purchase the collectible 2018 Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp. Sales benefit the Wildlife Diversity Fund, which is used to protect and manage wild animals and their habitats. The stamps are available at wildlife.ohiodnr.gov or any license agent.
• Today and tomorrow: Maumee Valley Gun Collectors show, Lucas County Recreation Center, Maumee.
• Thursday and Friday: Trap and skeet, open to the public, 5 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.
• May 5 and 6: Free fishing weekend, open to all Ohio residents and extends to all public waters, including Lake Erie and the Ohio River. This is the only weekend all year that doesn’t require a fishing license. Give fishing a try, you might get hooked!
• May 8: “Pollinators and How to Attract Them,” 6 p.m., Division of Wildlife District Two office, 952 Lima Ave., Findlay. It’s free with preregistration required by May 7. For information or to register, call Meredith Gilbert at 419-429-8359 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard, OH 45867-0413 or via email at email@example.com.