Classification: Fur Bearing Wildlife Species
Other Names: Black cat, fisher cat, pekan, atchok or oochik, Wejack.
Status: Valued fur animal. Official Montana furbearer managed and protected by regulated fur harvest seasons.
Identifying Characteristics: Long, slender body with a typical weasel shape. A well-furred tail comprises about one-third of the animal's total length. Pointed face, rounded ears, short legs. Fur is usually black on tail, legs, and rump. Fur on head and shoulders may have a grizzled appearance resulting from tri-colored guard hairs. White patches are common around the genital area and in the axillae of the forelegs. Both males and females have paired scent glands which are used for scent-marking territories. Total length: 23 to 40 inches. Weight: 3 to 12 pounds.
Habitat: Inhabits closed canopy, mature coniferous and deciduous forest. Availability of food is an important habitat component. Large deciduous trees are often used as maternal den sites.
Food Habits: Prey items are animals associated with the coniferous forest. Will also consume carrion and plant materials. Snowshoe hares, mice, squirrels, shrews, and birds are staple foods. Famous for ability to prey on porcupines.
Life History: Active during both day and night. Most hunting takes place on the ground. Most females breed for the first time at 12 months and produce their first litter at 24 months. Breeds during March and April. Produces one litter of about 3 young per year.
Similar Species: Marten - smaller, buffy patch on throat and breast. Wolverine - has yellowish stripes on sides and rump. Red fox - has a white tip on tail.
Fisher are woodland animals, and among the most effective predators on land. They are also the fastest American animal in trees. Females are less than half as big as males, yet command higher fur prices due to an extremely soft and silky fur. Also known in areas as fisher cat, black cat, tree fox or pekan, fisher have been known to follow trap lines, destroying the catches before the trapper arrives. Destruction of woodlands and high fur prices caused population declines up until the 1940's, but protection and reintroduction's have encouraged good fisher populations in many suitable habitat types.
Fisher are usually dark brown in color. Males oftentimes have a lighter grizzled coloration on the face, head and over the shoulders. The longer guard hairs in the fur are 1 1/2 to 2 inches on the body and 1/2 inch longer on the tail. The fur on males is much coarser than on the females and both are darkest on tail and legs. Two small, white patches of fur are found in the front armpit areas.
Males may measure 36 inches or longer and adult males often weight 10 to 12 pounds. Males rarely weigh more than 14 pounds. Females weigh about 1/3 of the average weight of males and most females are about the size of large mink, although their longer fur makes them appear to be larger. Typical females weigh between 4 and 5 pounds.
Fisher have 38 teeth, including four sharp canine teeth and flat topped molars to aid in chewing. Five toes register in fisher tracks and the inside toes are smaller and placed behind the other four. The fisher cannot retract it's claws and they are usually dulled somewhat by constant contact with the ground and rocks.
A pair of anal musk glands are present on both males and females and their musk is often released when the fisher is frightened or angry.
Female fisher mate 6 to 8 days after giving birth to their litters and delayed implantation causes a gestation period averaging 352 days or nearly a year. Breeding normally occurs during late March or early April, and the fertilized eggs do not become attached to the female's uterus until the following January, after which the growth of the litter begins.
One to four young are born in March or April and 2.7 is an average litter size. More females than males are usually born, contrary to most other furbearing species. The young are cared for strictly by the mother fisher and the natal den is usually in a hollow tree although a fisher will use an underground den if a better location is not available. Females usually breed when they are one year of age and males do not breed until they are two years of age.
Tracks in the snow are often the only sign easily noticed when fisher are present in an area, as the species is not usually observed in the wild. Fisher are solitary animals throughout most of the year, although snow tracking often indicates that two or more fishers will hunt in parallel patterns. Activity is mostly at night, although it appears that fishers hunt frequently during daylight hours in wilderness habitats.
Male territories are larger than female territories and the sizes of these regularly patrolled areas vary according to the availability of prey species. A 10 square mile territory is typical for a female fisher and males commonly hunt a 30 square mile area. Circuits are irregularly patrolled although fishers travel pretty much in a straight line when they have determined to go to a certain location. Males usually pass through a given area in their territory about once every two weeks. Female circuits in winter usually vary from 3 days to a week.
Both male and female fisher are highly skilled predators and territory relocation are sometimes necessary as fishers are capable of overharvesting prey species. Fisher are aggressive hunters and competition with other furbearers is not only for the same prey species, but by direct contact. Raccoon may be killed by a large fisher in trees or on the ground. Fisher can also catch marten on the ground or in the trees, and usually there is either a good population of fisher or marten but not both. There is strong evidence to suggest that fisher kill significant numbers of bobcat kittens too. Mother bobcats must leave their kittens unattended to hunt and there is no safe place in which to hide a bobcat den from a hunting fisher.
Snowshoe hares are a preferred food and a main reason that fisher like to frequent the dense cedar swamps. With keen senses of sight and smell, fisher often stalk the snowshoe rabbits, but they will trail them as well by scent alone. Red squirrel are a common prey species and fisher also eat mice, rats, voles, and shrews, which are avoided by most predators due to a musky odor. Grouse and ptarmigan are eaten regularly and there are records of fisher killing fox, mink and otters.
Fisher are skilled at killing porcupines. Attacks are to the face of the porcupine as the fisher circles and circles the porcupine who attempts to keep it's back toward the fisher. After repeated attacks to the quill free facial area, the porcupine becomes vulnerable to a throat attack. Porcupine are not safe when climbing trees, as fishers simply attack them from top side. Porcupines may be safe from fisher attacks when they are on branches and facing away from the fisher, or when they are in a position to hide their faces in a crevice or hole. Fisher often clean these skins as clean as if they had been skinned by a man. Fisher droppings often include quills, which seem to pass through the digestive system without ill effects.
Uneaten foods are usually cached for later use by fishers and the species will sometimes deposit their musk on the uneaten portions to discourage other animals. Fisher also eat carrion and substantial amounts of wild berries in season.
It was once thought that fisher required mature forests, but the species can thrive in newer second growth forest, favoring large tracts of pine, spruce, aspen, birch and cedar swamps. Good populations are considered to be one fisher per 10 square miles. As the only consistent predator of porcupines, fisher provide a service by controlling this species, as well as the damage that the porcupines inflict upon forests.
Fisher contribute to the overall health of prey species when their densities are light or moderate. Dense populations of fisher create problems for a variety of other species, including other furbearers. Fisher do have to abandon territories as food sources become depleted and less mobile furbearers can become malnourished when competing for the same prey species as fisher.
Predation upon fisher by other predators is not thought to be serious. A lynx or bobcat will rarely kill a fisher and wolves have been known to kill fisher caught out on frozen lakes. Young fisher are killed at times by large owls, eagles and coyotes. The solitary nature and infrequent use of the same dens keeps fisher free of most diseases and parasites. Mange can occur and fisher are also vulnerable to distemper, fleas, tapeworms and nematodes.
Ten years of age is considered old in a fisher.
Special Regulations Note
TRAPPING DISTRICTS 1 & 2 SEASON DATES: December 1 - February 15 of the following year. Season will close in 48 hours upon reaching the trapping district quota or on the season closure date, whichever occurs first.
Limit: Persons may take and possess one (1) fisher each per season.
Fisher Quota: Trapping District 1 has a quota of two (2) fisher. Trapping District 2 has a quota of five (5) fisher. Statewide quota is seven (7) fisher. Statewide female subquota is two (2) female fisher.
Trappers that accidentally capture a fisher that cannot be released uninjured must immediately notify a designated Fish, Wildlife & Parks employee for assistance to determine disposition and/or collection of the animal. It is unlawful for any person to retain possession of a furbearer after a species limit has been met, a trapping district quota has been reached, or a season is closed. (MCA 87-3-501).
Quotas: Current harvest quota information may be obtained by calling the appropriate Fish, Wildlife & Parks regional office during normal business hours or by calling 1-800-711-TRAP (1-800-711-8727) 24 hours a day or the FWP website at fwp.state.mt.us. The toll free line and website are updated by 1 pm. (MST) every day. Furbearer seasons will close in 48 hours when a species quota is reached prior to the end of the regular season.
The Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission has authorized the department to initiate a closure prior to reaching a quota or subquota when conditions or circumstances indicate the quota may be reached within the 48-hour closure notice period.
Reporting: Trappers are required to personally report their fisher harvest within 24 hours by calling the Fish, Wildlife & Parks regional office during office hours (8 AM - 5 PM weekdays) in the trapping district where the animal was taken so that FWP can monitor quota levels. Reporting can also be made after office hours and on weekends by calling 1-406-449-1065.
Pelt Tagging: Trappers are required to personally present the pelts of fisher for tagging to a designated Fish, Wildlife & Parks employee residing in the trapping district where the animal was taken within five (5) days of harvest. Trappers or hunters unable to comply with the five day pelt tagging requirements due to special circumstances or the unavailability of local FWP personnel must still register their pelts within five days of harvest by calling the proper regional office to make arrangements for tagging by FWP personnel at a later time. Pelts not presented or registered to department personnel within 5 days are subject to confiscation.
Carcasses: It is mandatory that the entire and intact carcass of all fisher be turned into Fish, Wildlife & Parks in good condition, at the time the pelt is presented for tagging. The skulls will be retained by Fish, Wildlife & Parks for processing and examination and then returned to the owner if desired. Good condition is defined as fresh or frozen and securely wrapped in such a manner as to have prevented decomposition in order that all tissue samples are suitable for lab analysis. Any fisher pelt that is presented for tagging without the carcass in good condition shall be subject to confiscation.
Did You Know?
Jim Bridger (1804-1881). Trapper, scout, mountain man. One of first white men to see the future Yellowstone Park and Great Salt Lake, which he believed to be an arm of the Pacific Ocean. Became partner of Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1830 and established Fort Bridger in Wyoming Territory in 1842. Laid out routes for the Central Overland Stage and Pike's Peak Express Company. Returned to Missouri in 1867 where died on his farm on July 17, 1881.
Rendezvous were held on a yearly basis at various locations until 1840, mainly in Wyoming, but Pierre's Hole in Idaho and Bear Lake in northwest Utah were favorite sites as well.
Fort Manuel Lisa was established in 1807 by Manuel Lisa at the mouth of the Big Horn River near Hysham. This was the first permanent settlement in Montana and was occupied until 1811.
John Jacob Astor was the first prominent member of the Astor family and the first multi-millionaire in the US. He amassed his wealth through fur-trading, opium smuggling, and New York City real estate. Famed patron of the arts. At the time of his death, he was the wealthiest person in the US.
In 1919, the Hudson’s Bay Company was approaching its 250th year in business. What began in a coffee house in London, in 1670, had now grown to become the undisputed leader of the international fur trade.
The desire for beaver fur hats in European men’s fashions dates back centuries and spurred the development of the 17th century North American fur trade. Beaver fur was the most prized of the fur trade because of its water repellant qualities. Encouraged by European trade goods, natives hunted beaver to extinction in some areas.
Destroying the Myth
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