Students are finding fishersGRAND FORKS — A graduate student studying fishers in northeastern North Dakota says he and his research partners are capturing more images of the animals on trail cameras than he would have expected.
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
GRAND FORKS — A graduate student studying fishers in northeastern North Dakota says he and his research partners are capturing more images of the animals on trail cameras than he would have expected.
Fishers, members of the weasel family, traditionally inhabit forested areas such as those common in northern Minnesota. But for some reason, the furbearers are becoming more prevalent in eastern North Dakota, even in areas with only marginal forest habitat.
Steve Loughry, a graduate student at Frostburg State University in western Maryland, said he and two other research students — Maggie Triska and Steve Pepper — in early June began looking for fisher signs at sites along the Turtle, Red and Tongue rivers.
Triska, of Wilton, also attends Frostburg State, and Pepper is a student at Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho.
The students started by placing “track plates” — pieces of aluminum set in a box and covered with soot and contact paper — at each location. They use bait such as beaver meat to draw animals to the boxes housing the track plates, Loughry said. Whatever walks on the sooty plate leaves a track on the contact paper.
They also placed digital trail cameras at several of the sites, hoping that whatever came to the track plates would trip the camera shutters.
That’s where things have gotten interesting. As of early this week, Loughry said, they had confirmed 29 fisher sightings in 26 different locations.
“We’re getting more than you would expect to find for this amount of time,” he said. “We figured they’d be more abundant in denser forest, but we’re finding them in cow pastures and places like that with few trees.
“Up until recently, you’d have found them in more older-growth forest,” he said. “We’re finding them in areas you typically wouldn’t find them. I think it’s kind of unique.”
The fisher study, a partnership between Frostburg State and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, is a continuation of research that began in 2006 to learn more about fishers and otters, another species that seems to be building in northeastern North Dakota.
A North Dakota state wildlife grant is funding the program.
Last year, Loughry said, the research focused on the Turtle Mountains, a wooded area with more traditional fisher habitat.
The researchers didn’t find any fishers in the Turtle Mountains last summer, Loughry said, but they did encounter pine martens, another member of the weasel family that he speculates might have wandered down from Canada.
The numbers of fishers they’ve seen or heard about already this summer suggests the animals are more than transients, Loughry said. Early in June, a lactating female was killed along a road near Larimore, and Cami Dixon, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Devils Lake, said officials regularly encounter fishers at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve near Fort Totten.
Another road kill recently was reported along U.S. Highway 2 east of Devils Lake.
Tom Serfass, an associate professor of biology at Frostburg State and project adviser, said he’s just as excited about the findings as the students are.
“This is unheard of,” Serfass said. “Twenty years ago, if I had tried to tell people fishers were living in this environment, they would have considered me (not credible). It’s fascinating.”
Serfass said the fishers likely are showing up in some unusual places because the population is expanding from somewhere else, most likely Minnesota.
“They’re just arriving, and their population, like any newly established population, is going to go up until they fit in with the environment,” he said. “We probably see them doing some things that are a bit unusual” compared with where they’ll be 10 years from now.
“Forested river corridors are going to be essential for them. Finding fishers on the prairie is just a bizarre thing,” Serfass said. “I can’t wait to see what these young people are able to pull together.”
Before beginning this summer’s fieldwork, Loughry said, he couldn’t have predicted the numbers of fishers he and his research partners would encounter.
“It’s so much fun every time we go to a site or pull a camera,” he said. “Things are going really well.”
The research means 12 to 15 hours a day afield, often fighting ticks and mosquitoes. Typically, Loughry said, they’ll spend three or four days setting up and baiting sites. Then, they’ll take a day off and spend the next three days rebaiting, checking track plates and seeing what the digital cameras have captured.
The students have been looking for fishers on both public and private lands, and landowner cooperation has been positive, Loughry said. Depending on where they’re working, he said, the researchers stay at either Turtle River or Icelandic state park.
Because fisher signs have been so common, Loughry said, the researchers plan to expand their search to places along the Pembina and Park rivers and areas southwest of Grand Forks. They’ll also check for otter signs about once a month, but fishers will be the priority.
Field season will continue until the third week of August and resume next summer.
“The next step is to determine how large their distribution is,” Loughry said.
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