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Are West Coast fishers no longer 'endangered'?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced the West Coast fisher is no longer under consideration for more federal protection. Other conservation groups disagree.

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    An image of the North American fisher. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is no longer considering the member of the weasel family for additional federal protections.
    Pacific Southwest Region United States Fish and Wildlife Service
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The West Coast fisher is no longer being considered for "endangered" status by federal agencies.

The plight of the cat-sized mammal gained federal attention in 2014, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed listing the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act due to threats from logging and pesticide use.

Now, the agency says the risks the West Coast fisher faces does not substantially threaten its population and the species will have to continue without the added federal protections that come with being put on the endangered species list.

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"We arrived at our decision following a comprehensive evaluation of the science and after a thorough review of public input," said Ren Lohoefener, director of the service’s Pacific Southwest Region, in a statement. "The best available science shows current threats are not causing significant declines to the West Coast populations of fisher and that listing is not necessary at this time to guarantee survival."

Historically, the fisher, which belongs to the same family as weasels, mink, and otters, could be found throughout the forests of Northern Canada and the United States, with populations also in the Appalachian, Rocky, and Pacific Coast Mountains. But the forest-dwelling animals suffered in the 1800s and early 1900s from a variety of factors, including trapping, logging, and urbanization. Populations are currently found in only a "fraction" of their historic territory, according to the FWS.

The reduced population prompted the Center for Biological Diversity in Tuscan, Ariz., to petition the FWS for help protecting the remaining fishers in 1994. The FWS has been acting on behalf of the fisher, considering it for protections and negotiating with logging companies, since 2000, according to an official FWS timeline.

The long history between the FWS and the North American fisher reached a potential climax in 2014, when the agency cited "potential threats to its habitat from wildfire, some timber harvest practices and indiscriminate and illegal use of pesticides to protect illicit marijuana plantations from rat infestations" as good reason to list fishers as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, according to the statement.

But after an agency investigation, the FWS determined the threats were not as significant as the agency once thought.

The Center for Biological Diversity and similiar organizations disagree and have alleged politics, not science, were responsible for the decision.

"If we are going to save the fisher for future generations then it needs range-wide protection," said Ben Solvesky, an ecologist with Sierra Forest Legacy, in a statement from the center. "It is incredibly disappointing that after decades of waiting and a mountain of scientific information supporting the need to list, the agency yet again let politics trump science."

The center points to evidence of only two naturally occurring populations remaining: a group of 300 fishers in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and a population ranging from 250 to a few thousand in southern Oregon and Northern California. The fishers also have three other populations that have been reintroduced.

Allegations of political motivations arrive at a vulnerable time for the federal agency, as a federal judge in Montana rejected a recent attempt by the FWS to remove wolverines from the endangered species list and chastised the organization for acting under political pressure last week.

But as the decision is potentially challenged, what happens to the fishers? There are still signs of hope.

Weyerhaeuser Co., a private owner of timberlands, announced on Thursday plans to commit up to 3 million acres of forest in Oregon and Washington for use of reintroducing the North American fisher population.

Other private and public voluntary efforts to aid in the conservation of fishers were also cited by the FWS in its decision to not list the animal under the Endangered Species Act. And the Service also said it would continue its own efforts to reintroduce the species.

"There has been a substantial increase in support and interest by federal, state, tribal, and private stakeholders in implementing voluntary and proactive fisher conservation measures," said Robyn Thorson, director for the service's Pacific Region, which includes Oregon and Washington, in the FWS statement. "It is clearly resulting in a much improved long term conservation outlook for fisher."

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