Hicks property, Cooking Lake Moraine (Photo by NCC)

Hicks property, Cooking Lake Moraine (Photo by NCC)

Finding fishers in the Cooking Lake Moraine

Fisher (Photo by Matthew Zalewski)

Fisher (Photo by Matthew Zalewski)

The Moraine Mesocarnivore project was created to test new ideas about biodiversity, connectivity and conservation within Alberta.

Francis Stewart, PhD candidate from the University of Victoria, is using this project, which began in 2014, as her PhD thesis. Together with Dr. Jason T. Fisher, senior research scientist and graduate advisor from the University of Victoria, she is investigating animal populations within protected areas; more specifically, how the fisher population is doing within the Cooking Lake Moraine natural area.

Fishers are small mammals, about the size of a house cat, that are native to North America. They are agile climbers, but mostly stay close to the forest floor to forge for food. Fishers are omnivores, eating mostly fruits and mushrooms, but will occasionally prey on small rodents. These small mammals are one of the only animals known to successfully prey on porcupines.

Fisher captured on trail cam in Cooking Lake Moraine (Photo courtesy Moraine Mesocarnivore Project)

Fisher captured on trail cam in Cooking Lake Moraine (Photo courtesy Moraine Mesocarnivore Project)

Fishers were going geographically extinct from Alberta due to unregulated trapping and habitat loss. In 1990, 20 fishers were reintroduced into the Cooking Lake-Blackfoot provincial recreation areas. The purpose of the Moraine Mesocarnivore study project was to judge if the fisher population had grown, and to determine how many of the current fishers had the DNA of the reintroduced animals.

Stewart and Fisher put up cameras on several properties in the Cooking Lake Moraine area, including on the Hicks property owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in partnership with the Edmonton and Area Land Trust.

“NCC properties have provided an integral part of understanding how the landscape functions,” Stewart explained.

The findings have indicated that the current fishers do not have the DNA of the reintroduced fishers from the 90s.

“Using DNA captured from hair snags at our camera traps, we have been able to confidently show that the fishers present on Cooking Lake Moraine are not descendent from the reintroduced fishers,” said Stewart. “These fishers are more closely related to that of northern Alberta fishers.”

Black bear captured on trail cam in Cooking Lake Moraine (Photo courtesy Moraine Mesocarnivore Project)

Black bear captured on trail cam in Cooking Lake Moraine (Photo courtesy Moraine Mesocarnivore Project)

These results show that at some point fishers from the north part of Alberta have migrated south to the Cooking Lake Moraine.

Understanding where fishers are on Cooking Lake Moraine is just one element of the project. The other aspect was to understand how mammals in general use different habitats across different landscapes.

Stewart picked this as her thesis because she felt her time would be best spent looking into the world’s most pressing question: mainly, how to maintain biodiversity in the face of the ever-increasing human footprint.

Alberta is an area of interest when investigating this important question, as it generates one of the highest forest losses on the planet, surpassing the deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest (Global Forest Watch Canada 2014).

“The Cooking Lake Moraine provided us with a model to understand how our actions are affecting biodiversity and how to best mitigate those impacts around the world,” Stewart explained.

To learn more about the project, visit the Moraine Mesocarnivore Project website.

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