URI student, professor to research local fisher populations

A doctoral student and assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island are working to uncover the mysteries of one of New England’s most reclusive and misunderstood woodland mammals: the fisher.

This three-year research effort, in collaboration with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), is hoping to shed more light on the behavior of these animals and why their population is increasing in the western part of the state.

For her PhD project, Laken Ganoe will be tracking local fishers by trapping them and re-releasing them with a GPS collar that will highlight their distribution patterns. The researchers will also be setting up trail cameras to monitor fishers behavior. 

Assistant professor of environment and life sciences Brian Gerber, who is helping on the project, said that the state permits this capture and release process which additionally goes through an intensive animal care use committee.

Ganoe explained that the research results may help give more insight into management decisions of these animals at the state level. The DEM’s goals include learning more about what types of habitats fishers thrive in the most so that they can conserve those areas, improving trapping season regulations and analyzing fisher’s road mortality rate.

Ganoe said that researchers have a lot more to learn about fisher’s ecology. Some things that researchers are looking to learn include how they are moving and interacting with each other and how males and females overlap during mating season.

“We get to learn a lot from it, and hopefully it will help keep the species here in Rhode Island where they belong,” Ganoe said. 

While researchers know that the fisher population has increased somewhat in recent years, Gerber said that there still are not any specific population numbers on record, part of that stems from how secluded fishers are.

Ganoe said she has worked with fishers before and has already learned a lot about them. She explained that fishers, or fisher cats, as people sometimes call them, are mustelids, meaning they are part of the weasel family.

“It’s funny, because in the northeast, a lot of people call them fisher cats and so they kind of colloquially get this association that they are actually cats, but they’re not,” Ganoe said.

In reality, fishers are more closely related to wolverines, otters, beavers and honey badgers. They are usually brown-colored, have a long, slinky body and they are about the size of an otter. The males have a “teddy bear” face with rounded ears.

Gerber added that while fishers are relatively small, they are carnivorous with an incredible amount of tenacity.

“Fishers aren’t the biggest animal, but they walk around like they are the biggest animal,” he said.

Ganoe had a few predictions for what the research might reveal and the explanation for their population numbers. One prediction is that the gypsy moth infestation that occurred five years ago and killed many trees has created an ideal habitat for fishers.

According to Ganoe, the dead trees from the moth infestation create gaps in the forest that allow dense shrubbery to grow, which attracts small mammals.

COVID-19 has presented some minor research obstacles that Ganoe said she might not have ever thought about otherwise. Creatures in the weasel family are very susceptible to the virus, so the researchers need to handle the animals with even more caution than usual, which creates some challenges when working out in the field.

“We have to stay really quiet while the animal is under anesthesia and usually you’d be able to mouth things to people like ‘can you grab that’ without actually saying it,” Ganoe said. “But with the masks on, it’s almost impossible to do that so communicating with the captors is kind of tricky.”

According to Ganoe, fishers are very misunderstood animals and she hopes to shine a light on them. 

“I hope that this project will kind of shine a light on them in the state and make people appreciate them more and I’m hoping we get a few more fisher advocates out there,” Ganoe said. “Even if it’s just a couple, I’ll feel like I’ve done my part.”