| Feb 14, 2008

Feature Article - February 14, 2008

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Letters - February 14, 2008 Fisher fables debunked in Verona By Jeff Green

Interest was high for a talk by Dr. Jeff Bowman (photo left) about fishers that took place on a snowy February 12th night at the Lions hall in Verona.

The Frontenac Stewardship Council and the Friends of the Salmon River sponsored the event, which drew more than 100 people.

Bowman, who works with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and Trent University, put one myth to rest right away – the myth that the MNR has not done any research into fishers.

Bowman and a team of graduate students have been studying fisher populations in Ontario, and looking at historical data. Over the years an interesting picture has emerged.

Fishers are relatively small; the females weigh 3 kg and the males 5-6 kg. They are long animals with short legs; they are excellent climbers, and their primary food sources are rabbits, porcupines and deer carrion.

A study of fishers’ diets that was done in 1970, using the stomach contents of fishers that had been trapped, found rabbit, deer, vegetation, porcupine, and even raccoon. The study found no traces of the animal that the most persistent local legend says it should have found - cats.

“It may be true that the odd fisher eats the odd cat but it is not an important part of the fisher’s diet,” Bowman said.

Fishers spend most of their time chasing rabbits, and periodically checking porcupine dens to try and catch porcupines as they travel from their dens to trees, according to Bowman.

By studying trapping records, it became apparent that fishers were plentiful in Ontario in 1930, but by 1950 fishers had become very rare in southeastern Ontario, mainly because of being caught in traps that were primarily intended for other fur-bearing animals. The only exception was Algonquin Park, where there are isolated regions that are not even accessed by trappers.

The population of fishers increased gradually between 1950 and the early 1990s in eastern Ontario and Bowman credits this to a gradual increase in habitat. Fishers tend to be plentiful in regions where there is 40% or more forest cover, and a mixed hardwood and coniferous forest is preferred.

“Forest cover in the Cornwall/Brockville region declined between 1930 and 1950 but it has increased by 3.5% per decade since then as the total number of farms has decreased,” Bowman said.

A team of researchers has taken DNA samples and placed radio transmitters on 87 fishers in each of two regions: the Kemptville region and Algonquin Park, to try to get a handle on fisher behaviour and population centres.

The studies have yielded interesting results and have changed the MNR’s thinking about how the fishers have come back into prominence in eastern Ontario and northern New York. The density of fishers today is much higher in the Kemptville region, where one fisher has a range of 3.6 kms2 as compared to 29.9 kms2 in Algonquin Park.

This is attributed to a superior habitat for the animal.

“High forest density, plentiful food, and minimal snow cover are ideal for fishers,” Bowman said. Snow cover is a problem for fishers because of their short legs, and this accounts for their low numbers in northern Ontario. A lack of forest has kept fishers out of western Ontario.

Genetic studies have shown there are five distinct lineages to Ontario fishers: Midhurst, Algonquin, Gatineau, Bancroft and Adirondack. Looking at the Kemptville population, it turns out they are derived from the Adirondack and Gatineau populations.

“The theory that the fishers in this region came from the Algonquin animals has not been borne out,” Bowman said.

After his talk, Jeff Bowman took questions. Among the questions were: “Are fishers dangerous to dogs? (No); Did the MNR re-introduce fishers in southern Ontario? (No. They were re-introduced on Manitoulin Island, however); Do they swim? (Yes); Are they dangerous to small children? (No); Do they have a call? (No); and what are their predators? (Other fishers, owls, hawks and coyotes).

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