Natalie Hanson

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Environmental advocates claim in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday that the Biden administration ignored the best available science by denying endangered species protections for some West Coast fishers.

In a complaint filed Tuesday, the Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Protection Information Center and Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ignored data about danger to fishers. These small animals are relatives to minks, otters and wolverines and are about the size of a house cat.

These animals once thrived in Washington state, Oregon and part of California, hunting prey like snowshoe hares and mountain beavers and eating insects and berries. The fisher’s remaining native populations are limited to Northern California and southern Oregon and the southern Sierra Nevada. Some have been reintroduced by translocation into Washington state, the southern Oregon Cascades and the northern Sierra Nevada.

Historically threatened by fur trapping before the practice was largely banned in the 1950s, the fishers in Northern California-southwestern Oregon make up the largest remaining population but are severely threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation caused by logging and devastating wildfires.

Noting that “fisher habitat is highly fragmented in many parts” of the Klamath-Siskiyou region, Fish and Wildlife found the Northern California and southern Oregon population is particularly vulnerable to wildland fire and vegetation management like salvage logging, as well as rodenticide use. In the 20 years since the plaintiffs petitioned to list the species, these threats have not abated and in some cases are increasing.

“From rodenticide poisoning to habitat loss from logging and fires, these tenacious critters face significant threats to their continued existence,” said George Sexton, conservation director at Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

"These tenacious animals can eat porcupines, but they can’t survive the damage we’re doing to their forests," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the center. "Fishers needed Endangered Species Act protection 20 years ago, and they need it even more today.”

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has a legal obligation to list species at threat of extinction but politics too often intervenes,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director at the Environmental Protection Information Center. “For 20 years, the service has employed every trick to avoid listing the fisher. Today we are in court because enough is enough.”

The advocates say in their complaint that Fish and Wildlife's decision to deny protections to the Northern California and southern Oregon fishers runs “counter to the evidence before the agency and relies on rationales already rejected in previous litigation.” They also say the department’s 2020 final rule on the issue provides no explanation as to whether fishers in the area outside of these two new regions warrant Endangered Species Act protection.

‘’The service fails to offer any rational explanation for its new, about-face conclusion that wildland fire does not threaten the continued existence of the Northern California and southern Oregon population, particularly since the best available scientific information demonstrates that the service’s earlier predictions were correct. A loss of the Northern California/southern Oregon DPS would mean the majority of the fishers in the West Coast States would be lost,” the center says in its complaint.

Fish and Wildlife granted protections to fishers across the West Coast in 2004 after the center petitioned. In 2010, the center sued Fish and Wildlife for lack of expeditious progress on the West Coast fisher listing petition. The parties reached a settlement in 2011 requiring Fish and Wildlife to issue a proposed rule or “not warranted” finding by 2014.

The agency's 2014 proposed rule concluded the West Coast fisher met the definition of a threatened species due to low populations and ongoing or new threats. But the agency later reversed course in 2016 and 2020 to only protect fishers in the southern Sierra Nevada.

The plaintiffs now want a judge to find Fish and Wildlife’s failure to address the entire scope of their petition, and the department’s 2020 final rule, violate the Endangered Species Act and Administrative Procedure Act. They also want the judge to order the agency to make a determination consistent with both acts within one year.

A Fish and Wildlife spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment by press time.