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Why a piece of roadkill is actually a good sign for one Ohio species

A fisher, a weasel-like animal about the size of a housecat, looks through leaves on the forest floor.
Last year, Ohio biologists collected a pregnant fisher killed on the side of the road. They say it’s a sign the weasel-like animal could be reproducing here again, for the first time in more than a century.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Fishers, such as the one here on a trail camera, have been confirmed in nine northeast Ohio counties through verified sightings. The fisher is a medium-sized mammal related to river otters and weasels.

Last year, Ohio biologists collected a dead mammal from a driveway in Ashtabula County, in the far northeast corner of the state.

It wasn’t a racoon or a possum or even a skunk. This mammal was a much rarer specimen: a fisher.

The weasel-like animal was pushed out of Ohio in the mid-1800s, when many of the state’s forests were converted to farmland.

But now, scientists believe fishers could be reproducing here again, because the fisher they collected from Ashtabula was pregnant.

“The fact that she was collected and was pregnant, we assume that it’s likely that there are other fisher out there that are also reproducing,” said Katie Dennison, a wildlife biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife. “That’s a good sign in general for the population.”

A fisher climbs a white birch tree in the autumn, surrounded by yellow leaves.
Douglas H. Domedion
Wikimedia Commons
A fisher climbs a tree in New Hampshire.

What’s a fisher?

Fishers are forest-dwelling mammals in the weasel family. They’re related to mink and otters. But they’re bigger than weasels — about the size of a housecat.

They’re very long with short legs, Dennison said, and they’re carnivores. They eat small mammals like squirrels and rabbits, and they’re one of the few animals that preys on porcupines.

Fishers are only found in North America. For a long time, they roamed the forests of Canada and the northern U.S.

But by the 1930s, habitat loss and over-trapping almost pushed the animal out of the country entirely.

Why are fishers coming back to Ohio?

In recent decades, states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia have launched reintroduction efforts to re-establish the animal.

Ohio has benefited from these efforts, Dennison said.

“Both of those states have seen increasing fisher populations, and now we’re seeing fisher come in, in particular from Pennsylvania into Ohio,” she explained. “So we’re really benefiting from those expanding fisher populations in neighboring states.”

At the same time, she said Ohio’s forests are steadily returning. Since 1970, the state has gained nearly a million acres of forested land.

Fishers rely on a forest habitat, so this land is critical to their return to the state.

The first sighting of a modern-day fisher in Ohio was confirmed in 2013. Since then, Ohio scientists have confirmed 40 more fisher observations across nine northeast Ohio counties: Ashtabula, Columbiana, Geauga, Trumbull, Mahoning, Lake, Jefferson, Harrison and Tuscarawas.

The majority of those sightings happened in the last three years, and since the Ohio Division of Wildlife confirmed the roadkill fisher was pregnant, they believe, if fishers aren’t already reproducing in the state, they will be soon.

What other animals are back in Ohio?

A photo from a trail camera shows a bobcat walking through branches and leaves beside a forest.
Ohio Division of Wildlife
Like fishers, bobcats have also returned to Ohio. Since the early 2000s, confirmed sightings of bobcats have steadily increased in the state.

The return of fishers to Ohio is one of many wildlife success stories here, Dennison said.

Bobcats have made a recent comeback too. They were also wiped out of the state in the mid-1800s, but since the early 2000s, sightings of them have become increasingly common.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife reintroduced 123 river otters to the state in the 1980s. They now estimate the population to be over 6,500.

Sightings of black bears, a state endangered species, have been increasing in Ohio since the ‘90s.

And beavers have returned to the state too.

“The list goes on,” Dennison said. “We’ve had a lot of success stories here.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
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