By James M. Odato
Charlotte Demers, manager of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb spots a favorite mammal once in a while crossing the road: “It’s the black panther.”
Unlike Demers, who knows what she’s seeing, many people reporting such sightings to the Department of Environmental Conservation, describe a large, dark cat, says Paul G. Jensen, a wildlife biologist at the DEC’s Warrensburg office. “We tell them probably it was a fisher,” he said, adding callers often misjudge distance and size and think they’ve seen an animal the size of a mountain lion.
DEC leads teams that have tagged and monitored fishers in the Adirondacks, using some 200 cameras. They’ve witnesses mammals that act like felines, but are members of the weasel family.
Relatively big—males range from 35 to 47 inches, and females, 30 to 37 inches—these carnivores are long-haired with short legs, small ears and a furry tail. The animals are dark brown or almost black and males typically sport a blonde or grizzled look from guard hairs around the neck, upper back and shoulders.
Males weigh 7 to 13 pounds, females 3 to 7 pounds, and their large, wide feet have five toes with semi-retractable claws that help them walk on snow, climb trees and handle prey. Hind feet rotate a half turn, allowing them to scoot down trees to pounce on prey—small to medium sized mammals and birds, even porcupines.
Fishers are scarcer in the Adirondack Park than other parts of New York, but they are found throughout the state and do well in the Tug Hill Plateau and areas where the forest isn’t as dense, says Jensen and colleague Timothy M. Watson. “The mature forests—lot of people think they’re best for wildlife—but for a lot of species mature forests may not be as suitable,” Watson says. Martens like the thick woods more than the bigger fisher, he says, and can be found high in the Adirondacks.
The fisher population is densest in lower elevations of the Adirondacks, the DEC biologists say.
In the park, the November-only trapping season allows for up to six martens but unlimited fishers, indicating the differences in populations.
DEC gave the number of fisher pelts at about 2,750 statewide in 2012, 1,538 a year ago, with 26 trapped in Essex County, 13 in Hamilton, 68 in Franklin, 47 in Warren, compared with just 38 marten pelts from just seven counties, five in the Adirondacks.
“We hear from a lot of people who hadn’t seen ﬁsher,” says Watson. “Now they’re seeing them.”