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Too late for the fisher?

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Conservation groups say that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision last week to not grant the Rocky Mountain fisher federal endangered species status could lead to the carnivorous weasel's demise.

"The fisher is clearly one of the most, if not the most, imperiled predators in the Northern Rockies," says Mike Leahy of Defenders of Wildlife. "It needs some sort of protection."

Related to mink, otter, and marten, fishers are cat-sized forest dwellers with long bushy tails and thick, luxurious brown coats. Populations have been in decline since the early 1900s, due in part to deforestation and trapping. Leahy estimates that today roughly 500 fishers roam wooded areas in Montana and Idaho. Conservation groups like Defenders of Wildlife and Friends of the Clearwater have for years sought federal protections. "Fishers are important not only in their own right, as fascinating hunters in our oldest forests, but also as an indicator of those forests where they still survive," says Gary Macfarlane, of Friends of the Clearwater. "When we reduce and fragment our old growth forests from roads, logging and other developments, fishers are among the first animals to disappear."

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But the federal government says there's too little information available to prove that human activities are harming the fisher. Beth Dickerson, a wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, says that because the federal government has increasingly moved to protect forested lands, fisher habitat is safer now then in decades past. "Under that management, the fishers have actually rebounded," she says. "They're being seen in more areas then has ever been documented before." There's not enough documentation, though, for the agency to estimate the species' population, she says. "I think it's important to emphasize that we need more information."

Federal protection would open the door to new funding and enable more research. Without that, Leahy says, there's a real possibility that the animal—like so many other species awaiting protections—could fall through the cracks: "By the time that anybody does something about it, it could be too late."

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