Hoopa Valley Reservation, California: In the steeply cleaved, fog-shrouded mountains of
California's northern Coast Range, there are few people,
more than a little mystery and tales of strange, seldom-seen
The venerable groves of Redwood National Park lie midway
between Eureka and the state border. To the east of the
park, the truly wild country of the Hoopa Valley tribe's
reservation provides refuge to endangered marbled murrelets
and spotted owls, ringtail cats, Pacific giant salamanders
(a stout creature that some say actually barks) and all
manner of other natural remnants of the world that greeted
the arrival of Europeans.
Cuddly weasel cousin
None of the reservation's denizens is more exotic, and
perhaps more threatened, than the photogenic Pacific fisher
(they're usually anesthetized when photographed) a
hyperactive cousin of weasels and wolverines.
Imagine an elongated, stubby-legged, dark brown to black
house cat with an attitude that makes the Tasmanian devil
seem like a cherub. Fishers are snarly - really snarly.
The Pacific fisher may seem less than lovable, but the
Hupa Indians consider the fisher a culturally significant
part of their world and want to ensure that it survives.
Other than mating, which happens in April, adult male and
female fishers have little to do with each other. Fishers
favor dense old-growth or mature conifer forests with a fair
number of rotting or hollow trees for dens. Fishers live and
hunt much of the time in the trees. They are amazing
climbers with unique ankle joints (also found in squirrels)
that allow their hind feet to rotate nearly 180 degrees so
they can climb down a tree headfirst.
Most fisher stories start with how these fierce creatures
are the only predators that can get the better of a spiny
porcupine. These accounts often claim that the fisher
somehow slips under the pincushion, flips it over then
attacks its soft belly. Not true. Forest legend. The truth
is much gutsier.
When attacking a porcupine, the fisher manically circles
the beast, waiting for it to turn its head and expose its
throat, then darts in for a quick bite, and keeps repeating
the attack until the porcupine is either exhausted or bleeds
to death. When the beast is finally dead, the fisher then
flips it over to feed.
Like most of the weasel family, fishers do like their
meat. Squirrels, chipmunks and mice are the fisher's dietary
favorites. Fishers also hunt on the ground for animals like
chubby marmots. Like bald eagles, they'll also feast happily
on the carcasses of spawned-out salmon. If meat becomes
scarce, the versatile fisher can survive on fruits and
When not peripatetically preoccupied with finding food,
fishers hole up in tree hollows, usually well off the
ground. That means their forest home has to be old-growth or
mature with rotting trees. Harvesting a forest for lumber
destroys the fisher's habitat.
Ferocious as the fisher is, it also has what fur-coat
makers consider a premier pelt, sometimes called the North
American sable. At the turn of the past century, fur
trapping had brought the fisher to the brink of extinction.
Though fishers were never common, they once ranged
through most of the Coastal Mountains down into Marin County
and through the Sierra into Kern County. Today there are two
small California populations: one south of Yosemite and one
along the Klamath River in the northern part of the Hoopa
Valley Tribe Reservation.
Forestry and the fisher
The Hoopa Valley tribe's primary source of income is
timber harvesting. Internationally recognized by the United
Nations and the Forest Stewardship Council as a model for
community-based, sustainable forestry, the tribe wanted to
be sure their harvesting did not harm the fishers
The tribe asked the Wildlife Conservation Society and
Humboldt State University to work with tribal members in
wildlife field and laboratory techniques that help them
assess the effect of the tribe's forest management on
fishers and other wildlife.
Fishers are creatures of habit. Using motion-sensitive
cameras focused on baited trees, researchers found fisher
paths. Then they trapped the elusive animals humanely,
tagged them, took blood and fecal samples and fixed them
with radio transmitter collars to allow the fishers to be
followed remotely as they went about the business of being
Trapping for the current program began in 2004. The
numbers were alarming. The fisher population showed a 45
percent decline compared with 1998 figures. Continued study
has pointed to two possible culprits: disease or increased
The research collaborative is continuing to explore the
fisher's habitat to find other limiting factors that might
be adversely affecting the fisher. Their ultimate survival
is a puzzle of many pieces.
Survival is not a mystery to the Hupa, however. If it is
humanly possible, the Hupa will share that gift of life with
the Pacific fisher.
Wildlife Conservation Society
Pacific fisher site, sfgate.com/ZFQG.
Hoopa Valley tribe