North Coast and Cascades Research Learning Network NPS Arrowhead 
Fisher - photo courtesy of John Jacobson

Forest Carnivores

Seattle Times Newspapers in Education

As the tawny, long-tailed marten slips through the night forest, it catches a scent no carnivore can resist. In search of prey, the marten climbs a tree but is momentarily blinded by a flash of light. Startled but undaunted, this small forest animal remains focused on its intended meal—raw chicken wrapped in wire and tuna inside a can.

Is this a trap? Yes, but not the traditional type. Many traps, like historical fur traps, are designed to kill animals. But this innovative trap captures only an image. An animal reaches for the bait, trips the motion sensor and records its image for science.

Between 2001 and 2005, researchers from Mount Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades National Parks used cameras to document the presence of small-sized carnivores in these forested parks. Carnivores play a key role in sustaining the biodiversity and maintaining the balance of species in an ecosystem. Like martens, many forest carnivores are disappearing across North America. In Washington State, fisher, Canadian lynx, and wolverine are species of great concern.

In the past, fishers and other species reached dangerously low numbers when they were trapped for their fur or bagged for bounties. Although no longer hunted in Washington State, human impact to habitat, such as road construction, development and urbanization, still adversely affects these forest carnivores. Fishers require an exceptionally large territory for their small size. Due in large part to habitat depletion, scientists believe that fishers no longer inhabit Washington State.

Researchers collect data at a camera station
Researchers collect data at a camera station - photo courtesy of NPS

In an attempt to determine which carnivores still live in forests protected by Washington's national parks, researchers were faced with the challenge of locating and tracking elusive carnivores in isolated wintry terrain. They set up camera stations in randomly selected remote forest blocks with prime carnivore habitat of large mature trees and full canopy cover.

Of the 4,317 pictures taken, marten filled many frames in the North Cascades and Mount Rainier National Parks while spotted skunks were most common in Olympic National Park. Bobcat, coyote, and ermine (short-tailed weasel) also made frequent appearances in one or more of the parks. The cameras photographed other curious animals, from bears to flying squirrels. A northern spotted owl, wings spread and talons out, also visited the photo trap.

But a few key species were missing. As feared, no fishers were found in any of the national parks. This supports the hypothesis that these rare carnivores have been extirpated from the state. Nor were there recorded sightings of lynx or wolverines. Surprisingly, no Olympic National Park pictures recorded marten images, prompting concern for the coastal marten populations.

This important study on forest carnivores in Washington's national parks will help provide a more promising future for the animals and for the parks. The National Park Service supports the protection of dwindling populations of forest carnivores. Already, park managers are working with other agencies to discuss the feasibility of reintroducing fishers into forests on public lands. Researchers throughout the national park system are working to ensure the health of forest ecosystems.

Olympic National Park
Glacier-capped mountains, wild Pacific coast and magnificent stands of old-growth forests, including temperate rain forests-at Olympic National Park, you can find all three. About 95% of the park is designated wilderness, which further protects these diverse and spectacular ecosystems.
Olympic is known for its biological diversity. Isolated for eons by glacial ice, and later by the waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Olympic Peninsula has developed its own distinct array of plants and animals. Eight kinds of plants and 15 kinds of animals are found on the peninsula but no where else on Earth.
Educational Contact: Outreach and Education Specialist (360) 565-3146
Recorded Park Information: (360) 565-3130
Wilderness Information Center: (360) 565-3100
Recorded daily information: (360) 565-3131
Address: Olympic National Park Visitor Center address: 3002 Mt. Angeles. Rd, Port Angeles, WA 98362
Website: More in depth classroom information is found at Hands on the Land.

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