Natalie Hanson

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — West Coast fishers could win new protections under the Endangered Species Act, thanks to a new settlement between environmental groups and the feds approved Friday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to reconsider whether West Coast fishers in Northern California and southern Oregon warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The small furry animals are relatives of mink, otters and wolverines, and live in old-growth forests. They once roamed forests from British Columbia to Southern California but their U.S. range is limited to two native populations in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains and in Northern California and southwestern Oregon.

Some small populations have been reintroduced in the central Sierra Nevada, the southern Oregon Cascades, the Olympic Peninsula, Mt. Rainier and the North Cascades. The largest population resides in the biodiverse Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains region, but is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation due to logging, high-severity fire and post-fire salvage logging.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other ecological advocates first petitioned the service to grant the fishers endangered species protection in 2000. That led to a 2004 determination that the fisher should be listed as threatened throughout its West Coast range. The service delayed, saying it lacked the resources to do so.

However, the agency affirmed the animals being imperiled annually, until 2016, when it decided to deny protection. After the environmental groups challenged that decision, the service agreed to grant protections only to fishers in the southern Sierra Nevada.

In September 2022 the center filed suit to challenge the denial of protections in the rest of the fisher’s habitat. 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.

In the latest filing, the service agrees to a stipulated settlement agreement “in light of new information” to spend one year studying whether the fisher should be listed as an endangered or threatened species. It will also consider public input on the issue.

“It’s great news that the Fish and Wildlife Service is reconsidering its refusal to protect the elusive Pacific fisher, but waiting more than two decades to provide these protections is indefensible,” said Brian Segee, endangered species legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“These fierce, plush-furred forest weasels have few natural predators, but they’re no match for people logging and poisoning their old-growth habitat. Protecting them under the Endangered Species Act is more important now than ever.”

“This is our last, best chance to prevent extinction,” said George Sexton of Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center. “The combination of logging, rodenticides and fires have pushed fishers to the brink.”

“For over 20 years, we have fought for the West Coast fisher and its imperiled ecosystems. Our organizations won't stop until the species is afforded the full legal protection that it deserves,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center.

The service has until Aug. 21, 2025, to decide whether to protect the fishers. U.S. District Judge Trina Thompson approved the agreement and dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice Friday, and expects a joint status report on the agreement and all attorneys’ fees and costs by July 10.