CCSU grad student researcher discovers promising population of animal thought to be in decline

Published on Monday, 3 May 2021 12:04
Written by LISA MASSICOTTE

@LMassicotteTC

Connecticut’s obscure, elusive weasel is suspected to be in a state of decline.

However, that may not be the case for the Quiet Corner.

Here, they seem to be thriving at the Yale-Myers Forest.

In her plight to complete possibly the largest distribution study and camera survey of fishers in the state, Central Connecticut State University graduate student researcher Katerina Gillis discovered a promising population of fisher in the Yale-Myers Forest, which spans the towns of Ashford, Eastford, Union and Woodstock.

“This is really exciting to see her findings. We’re creating diverse habitats with our management and it’s great to see the evidence of that with finding evidence of fisher on the landscape,” Yale-Myers Forest Manager Jessica Lloyd said.

Misunderstood animals

This mysterious creature of the night dons a shroud of myths and misconceptions that Gillis said she hopes to uncover and educate the public on.

“They’re definitely misunderstood animals,” Gillis said. “They’re native, they deserve to live here as much as any other species and fishers just being present in the habitat really does help even out squirrel and rodent populations.”

Fishers, often inaccurately called “fisher cats,” are what many mistakenly claim to be heard, due to the old wives’ tale of the infamous “fisher scream,” but not seen.

So, in 2018, Gillis slipped on her snowshoes, stuffed her research pack with cameras and set out to find them herself.

“Back when I worked for DEEP (Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) we would have a lot of questions about fisher and 'fisher cat' (such as) 'are they the ones yelling like a lady being murdered in my backyard?' We'd have tons of questions and that always made me super interested,” Gillis said during a recent research presentation.

She later noted fishers are actually very quiet and the screams people commonly associate with fishers are more than likely from a red fox or a raccoon.

For her distribution study, Gillis set more than 240 camera traps, categorized into 40 different detection units, on various state-owned and private-owned forestland deemed as suitable habitats for fishers.

“The aim of this study is really to find out exactly where they are and how many detections we can get,” she said.

Half the camera units were set west of the Connecticut River and the other half was set in the east.

“That’s about 1,800 miles I’ve hiked throughout the state,” she said.

An eastern species

Although her fisher distribution research is not complete, the data she has leads her to suspect fishers prefer to inhabit forests east of the Connecticut River and/or in northern Connecticut, along the Massachusetts/Connecticut border.

So far, 100 percent of the units in the east detected fishers, whereas 35 percent of the western units detected fisher presence, she explained.

Three of those units, 18 cameras, were set at the 7,840-acre Yale-Myers Forest, which is notably one of the oldest sustainably managed forests in the country, according to Yale University.

“Yale-Myers was our first detection of the year and it was on Christmas,” Gillis said, after explaining each of the three detection units at Yale-Myers operated for one month at a time from December 2020 to February 2021.

“There were fishers on all of them,” she said, referring to the units.

Large areas of dense, unfragmented, old-growth forestland at Yale-Myers provide excellent habitat for fishers, according to Gillis.

Once completed and compared with prior research out of Vermont, Gillis hopes to have a better understanding of why they live where they do and what barriers exist in Connecticut that prevent fisher populations from moving and living throughout the entire state.

“Part of my thesis is to talk about whether the Connecticut River is a natural barrier that’s not allowing them to move over to the west side,” Gillis said, after explaining fishers naturally came into eastern Connecticut by moving down from Massachusetts.

Nearly extinct

These carnivorous, predatory weasels are native to Connecticut, however they were extirpated, or considered locally extinct, from the state around 1870 because their soft, dark fur would sell for as much as $150 per pelt, according to the DEEP.

This, combined with the habitat destruction from forest clearing for agricultural and timber usage, led to the fisher's demise in Connecticut, according to state biologists.

In an effort to bring fishers back, the DEEP reintroduced fishers to the northwestern portion of the state, releasing groups of fishers in March 1989 and March 1990, according to CT DEEP records.

State biologists confirmed the reintroduction was successful after snow tracking and radio-tracking studies supported the released fishers stayed in the area and had high survival rates and successfully reproduced, according to the DEEP.

Fishers are now thought to be in decline in the state. However, there is limited research and documentation.

From 2003 to 2004, state sighting and vehicle-kill reports documented 174 fishers from 71 towns.

Compared to 2017, when 13 fisher sightings were reported; 2018, with 17 reports; 2019, with 47 reports and 2020 had a small uptick of 90 reports of fishers.

“Sightings were most prominent in the period near 2002-2004 and have declined since. There was a modest uptick in sightings in 2020 but that may have been due to efforts to increase public awareness of our sighting program,” DEEP wildlife biologist Paul Rego wrote in an email. “Other indicators of the level of fishers such as the number of vehicle kills and the number harvested during the regulated trapping season have also declined since the 2002-04 period,” Rego continued.

Gillis said her study, which could help determine future protection efforts and hunting regulations, will be the only study done since those initial DEEP studies encompassing the reintroduction efforts.

“The main importance of fisher is the fact that they are a native species here in Connecticut and it’s good to maintain our native species within the state, unlike red fox and coyote, which are not and are direct competitors, Gillis said.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection records fisher sightings and roadkill reports to help determine population estimates.

To report a fisher sighting or report a vehicle-killed fisher, email observations to deep.ctwildlife@ct.gov. Be sure to include the date, time, location and any photos or video of the sighting.



Posted in New Britain Herald, New Britain on Monday, 3 May 2021 12:04. Updated: Monday, 3 May 2021 12:07.