Rare Weasels of Winter

As a child I was wary of weasels. My grandparents taught me to listen for the distinctive murderous cry of a fisher along the creeks in their woods—and to be wary of them because they killed cats. When my cat wandered curiously into the culvert near the house, it sent me into a panic over what might lurk inside waiting to gobble my tabby, Triscuit. We lived near a saltmarsh. Fishers and other weasels, more formally known as the Mustelidae family, were more common 20 years ago; nowadays if I see one, I think of it as a rare treat. In particular, there are three weasels that are rarely seen but still inhabit woods and wetlands of North America: the fisher, the wolverine and the ermine.

In the last ten years, there has been some attention on the successful reintroduction of wolverines (Gulo gulo) and fishers (Martes pennant) into areas of North America where the populations had declined significantly due to habitat loss. Both are members of the weasel family with some differences.  The fisher, found only in North America, is a medium-sized weasel with a long body, short legs and long bushy tail. Its population had been on the decline—especially in the Northwest due to logging and habitat loss, until the early 2000s, when biologists with Conservation Northwest (partnered with FWS) began the process of reintroducing native fishers in the Pacific Northwest http://www.conservationnw.org/wildlife-habitat/fisher To watch a video of the 2009 release of fishers, go to:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBageyLQk3k On the west coast, especially in Oregon, the fisher has been threatened by fragmented habitat, wildfires and incidental mortality (getting hit by a car, getting caught accidentally in a trap). Currently the west coast fishers are being considered for Endangered Species Protection and they are listed as a “sensitive species” by the U.S. Forest Service. http://www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/Species/Data/Fisher/ There are a lot of misconceptions about the fisher. Some that I have read or heard can be dispelled easily: 1) they do not fish, despite their name. 2) They are not part-cat, even though a nickname is the “fisher-cat.”  3) Domestic cats are not high on their list of dietary preferences. Cool fact: the fisher is one of the only specific predators of the porcupine! For a slide-show of a fisher reintroduction/release project, go to:http://www.defenders.org/wildlife_and_habitat/wildlife/fisher.php

The wolverine is the largest member of the weasel family. Known for its voracious appetite, a “glutton” (thus its Latin name), it’s a surprisingly strong and fearless competitor for food. A 30 pound wolverine might even try to steal from a 500-pound black bear. A film by NATURE depicted the wolverine as a rare and wonderful creature (Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom):http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/
episodes/wolverine-chasing-the-phantom/photo-gallery/6064/

The wolverine’s oversized paws act like snowshoes for this predator, which depends on an abundance of snow in winter for hunting. Although once driven to near extinction from over-hunting by man for its fur, wolverines are now threatened by climate change. Recently the FWS released its decision (December 13, 2010) that the wolverine warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act but was precluded from protection. Wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland’s study demonstrated that wolverines depend on deep spring snow cover, a condition threatened by a warming climate.http://www.crownofthecontinent.net/content/wolverines-in-glacier-national-park/cot298F435364A472CBE and http://www.hcn.org/blogs/range/climate-changes-threat-to-the-wolverine For more about wolverine conservation in the Northwest, visit:http://www.conservationnw.org/wildlife-habitat/wolverine For an outstanding blog about wolverines describing an ecologist’s work in Wyoming, visit:http://egulo.wordpress.com/ For more facts about the wolverine, visit the Wolverine Foundation at: http://www.wolverinefoundation.org/

Like the wolverine, the ermine, or short-tailed weasel, (Mustela ermine) also depends on snow for hunting, but for a slightly different reason: camouflage. Ermines’ coats turn white in winter to blend in and allow them to hunt their prey unseen. In the spring, their coats molt and they turn mottled, a blend of white and black and brown, until their dark sleek summer coats grow out completely. Many arctic mammals have the ability to change their winter coat to be camouflaged in the snow: http://www.ehow.com/list_6759427_list-mammals-winter-camouflage.htmlUnlike the wolverine and fisher, the ermine is much more common, perhaps because it is smaller and has adapted to live wherever it can find prey. Ermines like to live in marshes, woodlands with bogs and even tundra. It adapts well to a harsh living environment. For my poem titled, “Ermine,” go here.

Those who like to go out on snowshoes may come across tracks of animals that they never see. A weasel’s tracks have five toes on front and back feet. For other tips on identifying animal tracks in the snow, go to:  How to Identify Animal Tracks in Snow | Trails.com http://www.trails.com/how_
2941_identify-animal-tracks-snow.html#ixzz1BJV
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 and check out this blog about one woman’s quest to follow a set of fisher tracks through the woods and wetlands last winter:http://www.tamiasoutside.com/2010/01/04/track/ For an excellent guide to identifying wolverine and fisher-marten tracks, as well as other carnivores (coyote, wolf, lynx), refer to this Forest Carnivore Identification Guide: http://home.mcn.net/~wtu/tracking.html

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