LINCOLN CREEK – After wading across the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in a pair of brand-new defective waders and skiing sodden-footed through a miles-long thicket of tangled deadfall, Glacier National Park wildlife biologist John Waller admits he may be chasing a phantom.

His research often requires skiing across 15 miles of steep, rugged terrain in a single day and working from dawn until dusk – a trying effort for what may prove to be the wildlife biologist’s equivalent of a snipe hunt. But even if the critter he’s pursuing eludes him, and even though the ultra-lightweight Hodgman waders he just bought are worthless, the scientific data Waller’s study will produce and the questions it may help answer are invaluable.

Do fishers exist in Glacier National Park?

Most wildlife experts agree that it’s unlikely. But trying to prove empirically that the rare, cat-sized carnivores do not populate the region is like trying to prove that the Flathead Lake monster is a mythic figure.

“It’s like trying to prove a negative, which you can’t really do,” Waller said. “I’m pretty skeptical that we’ll find any fishers, but the fact is we just don’t know. And this will bring us closer to an answer.”

Researchers currently have little knowledge of the distribution or abundance of fishers in the park. But if they don’t populate a pristine environment like Glacier National Park, where suitable habitat for fishers exists, why not? And what should wildlife managers do about it?

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Waller said.

Every year, Waller hears from a half-dozen park visitors and staff members who report seeing a fisher, a forest-dwelling carnivore in the weasel family. Some reports are accompanied by photographs, which invariably depict the taxonomically similar pine marten, and some of the anecdotal sightings come from credible sources.

Still, there is plenty of reason to doubt the veracity of those sightings. For example, there has never been a confirmed report of a fisher killed on Glacier Park roads, which suggests either an absence or very low numbers in the park, since road-kill has been a source of fisher mortality in other regions with known populations.

Trap reports along the park’s boundary also have never turned up a fisher, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials, and attempts at reintroducing the animal were unsuccessful in the Whitefish Range, which supports similar habitat as Glacier.

“If there were fishers in Glacier National Park and the Middle Fork, our marten trappers would likely pick them up as incidental catch,” said Jim Williams, Region 1 wildlife manager for FWP. “We have never seen a verified carcass specimen from Glacier National Park. We have never documented a fisher in the Middle Fork. We have only received anecdotal observations.”

“It will be fascinating to see what John finds,” he continued. “We are really supportive of his research and we are waiting to see if he can document a fisher there. We think it’s unlikely, but we’re eager to see the results.”

***

Working with a team of as many as 50 volunteers, Waller’s parkwide study involves setting and checking 36 baited hair trap sites, all of them in remote wilderness locations inside the park. The project is funded through a grant from the Glacier National Park Conservancy and uses non-invasive hair traps that consist of a cardboard hood, meat or carrion, a potent scent-lure, remote cameras and gun brushes, whose bristles rob fur samples from any critter that rubs against them.

When the field study is complete, Waller will send the samples to the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula for DNA testing.

Since commencing the study in January, the cameras have captured images of a suite of animals like pine marten, fox, lynx and even a wolverine – fewer than 300 of which exist in the Lower 48 – but not a single fisher.

“It’s unlikely that we would see wolverines, which are so rare an animal, and never see a fisher if they do exist in the park,” Waller said.

Six years ago, the researcher conducted a smaller pilot study of fisher in Glacier National Park, using the same hair-trap method in a subdistrict of Lake McDonald, about 13 kilometers in size. His team collected 19 hair samples and, of the 18 samples that produced an identifiable species, none of them were from a fisher.

And in 2011, Waller conducted a DNA-based population study of wolverines in Glacier Park. For that study, volunteers collected samples from 30 bait posts throughout the park. Although Waller is still analyzing data from the study and hopes to publish the report in the near future, he does know that none of the DNA samples came from a fisher, an improbable outcome if the animal indeed calls Glacier Park home.

“After all those years, I still haven’t found a fisher in the park,” Waller said. “So, I decided to give it another shot.”

The current project is the most extensive yet. Waller and his team relied on a map designed by the U.S. Forest Service that pinpoints fisher-friendly habitat to inform the placement of bait stations, all of which are set in remote, hard-to-access areas in nearly every corner of the park.

If the results come back negative for fisher, it may conclude Waller’s fisher research efforts inside the park.

But what does it mean for the fisher?

***

Early studies suggest that fishers were historically found in Glacier Park, but researchers believe that trapping pressures extirpated the animal from the Rocky Mountains by the mid-20th century. In the middle of the century, a series of efforts to reintroduce the animal commenced in the Swan, Pintler and Bitterroot-Selway mountain ranges of Montana, and in the Purcell Mountains and Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho.

Drawing from fisher populations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and British Columbia, additional reintroductions occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Cabinet Mountains of northwest Montana, some of which have proved successful.

“The Cabinet transplant was successful and did re-establish fisher in parts of western Montana,” said FWP wildlife biologist Tim Thier, who added that other efforts at reintroduction were unsuccessful.

Besides the Cabinet Mountains, fisher populations are the most robust in the maritime belt of the Montana-Idaho border, Thier said, but no “pure native” populations have been found to date.

If “pure native” populations do exist, Waller said, Glacier Park “would be a logical place to find them, given its long history of protection.”

He and his team, which includes one full-time employee until the project ends on April 1, have retrieved three samples from nearly every site, and in March they will begin retrieving the bait stations, a task that will take most of the month.

Then Waller will submit the samples for testing, and the results will likely be available in August or September.

Until then, the researcher, who has been with the park for a decade, continues to tromp through the dense backcountry of Glacier Park in search of the critter that has evaded him, his backpack teeming with spoiled meat, gun brushes and foul-smelling scent lure.

“It’s a great job,” he said. “I’ll find any excuse to travel through the woods packing around smelly stuff.”

Reach Tristan Scott at @tristanscott, at tristan.scott@missoulian.com or at (406) 531-9745.

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