KINGSTON – New grant funding from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management will allow scientists at the University of Rhode Island to study the state’s growing fisher population.
These funds have launched a three-year effort to capture and track fishers throughout western Rhode Island, and to better understand their population numbers and movement as the animals expand into more developed areas of the state.
Doctoral student Laken Ganoe, who is leading the project along with Assistant Professor Brian Gerber, said fishers were “once known as a deep dark forest-dwelling animal, [but are] now living in people’s backyards and in urban settings.”
“It’s a unique landscape for us to study a creature that we don’t know much about in the state,” she said.
The carnivorous mammal was extirpated from Rhode Island in the 18th and 19th Centuries when forests were being cleared for farmland, but have made a return in recent decades. While fishers can be found in a variety of woodland habitats and tend to avoid large areas without high overhead canopy closure — like agricultural areas — they appear to be expanding their range.
Currently, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management allows licensed trappers to trap fishers for their fur during a 25-day hunting season in December, but more data on the secretive predators could help the state manage the population more effectively.
Ganoe will be collecting this data by setting up cameras at 200 sites in Providence, Kent and Washington counties to document where the animals are found. Additionally, each year over the three-year study, Ganoe plans to place tracking collars on up to 20 fishers. The collars will not only monitor their movements, but also their activity levels throughout the day.
“We hope to learn how fishers are interacting with their environment in this matrix of urban and forested landscape,” Ganoe said. “Are they spending more time out and about in urban areas at night while being more active at dusk and dawn in forested areas? Are human activities constraining their activity patterns?”
“Tracking individual fishers for the winter will get a really fine scale idea about how they cross roads, what forests they are selecting for, what areas they’re avoiding,” she added. “If we do it right and we’re lucky, we’ll be able to estimate how many fishers there are in certain regions of Rhode Island. Hopefully all of this will give us guidance to foresee the future so we can change management tactics quickly as necessary.”
This three-year study will not be Ganoe’s first time researching fisher populations. Before enrolling at the University of Rhode Island, the doctoral student studied fishers in the Sierra Mountains of California. And her interest in the mid-size predator began even before earning a master’s degree from Pennsylvania State University.
While hunting as a teen, the Clarion, Pennsylvania native witnesses a fisher catch a chipmunk and eat it right beside her after scurrying up a tree.
Fishers are opportunistic predators and will consume any animal that they can capture and kill, however, small mammals are the mainstays of their diet. They’ll also dine on dead animals, particularly deer, and eat a variety of fruits and nuts when available. They’ve also been known to eat pet food left outside for cats and dogs.
According to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, stomach content examinations of fishers from this area reveal small mammals such as mice, voles, red, gray, and flying squirrels, as well as birds and an occasional snake, frog, insects, or fish, to be the most common staples of their diet.
Although fishers are known as excellent climbers, most hunting activity takes place on the ground where easily-captured prey is available.
Sizing up somewhere between a mink and a river otter, fishers appear somewhat stocky, with short legs, large feet, and an elongated body with dark fur ranging from black to dark brown. They also have long, dark tails that appear bushy — partially in the fall and winter.
There’s a lot of misconceptions about fishers out there, though, according to Ganoe.
“They have a bad reputation,” Ganoe said. “We want to learn more about them so we can educate people about them.”
“And because there is a trapping season for them,” she added, “we want to inform future management decisions about bag limits and season lengths so we can properly manage the species and so we know we have a harvest system that will support the fisher population and not damage it.”
This is one of two research projects Gerber is leading that focus on learning more about Rhode Island’s mid-sized predators. The other is investigating the distribution of beavers, muskrats and river otters in the state.