As winter turns to spring, the Masked Biologist ties together constellations, spring, and the restoration of a wildlife species almost lost in this week’s Wildlife Matters.
The big dipper is one of the most familiar constellations in the sky. Many of us learned as little children that we could line up the two stars at the front of the dipper and draw a line to the north star, which could give us confidence in navigating our way even in the dark. Recently, however, I learned to look at this constellation in a different way, not only as a tool to find the north star, but also as a way to look at the seasons, and a way to look at the Ojibwe people.
There is a terrific Ojibwe story, originating from the people who lived here long before us, about the origin of the big dipper, called How Fisher went to the Skyland. In the days of perpetual winter, the days were cold and the food was scarce. One day, Ojiig the Fisher and his strongest friends, Otter, Lynx, and Wolverine, decided to climb the highest mountain and break through the barrier around the Skyland and return the warm weather to the earth. After several tries, Wolverine and Fisher broke through the sky and found the warm weather hoarded by the sky people. While there, he heard the beautiful songs of caged birds, and he realized if he freed these birds, and they flew down to earth, they would provide good food. As he was releasing the birds, the sky people returned and tried to stop him from escaping. Rather than dive back through the hole, he waited and chewed the hole in the sky larger to let as much warm air out as possible. The Fisher had magic that protected him from the arrows the sky people fired, but eventually they hit the one vulnerable part of his body, the tail, and he started to fall from the sky. The spirits took pity on him, and caught him before he hit the ground, and gave him a place of honor in the sky. That place is the visible constellation we were raised to call the big dipper, and the handle is the tail. Every year, he makes his journey up into the sky, and every winter he breaks through to free the songbirds and the warm weather. And, every winter he is struck by the arrow and begins to fall back first from the sky. But then, as he brings an end to winter, he returns to earth and the journey begins anew.
There was a time when the fisher was almost gone from Wisconsin. Early in the last century, the outlook for the fisher was bleak. A combination of timber harvest, fur harvest, possibly disease, predator bounties and other factors took the population so low that harvest seasons were closed. Then, in the 1950s, a reintroduction effort began, bringing Adirondack fisher from New York to Wisconsin in exchange for some of our abundant bobwhite quail. Reintroduction efforts continued sporadically through the 60s. By the 1980s, the population had stabilized enough that a conservative trapping season was once again established in 1985. That year, there were 38 fisher trapped, and a pelt was worth $135.
Since that time, the fisher population has seen some ups and downs. Overall, they seem to do well in our Northwoods. When Pine Martens were first reintroduced, there were areas where fisher trapping was encouraged to help take some of the predator pressure off of the new species. The marten reintroduction has not been as successful as the fisher introduction was, but it is far more recent and likely needs more time. Inside the geographic locations considered marten areas, fishers can only be caught in live traps. In the rest of the state open to fisher trapping, other trap types like body gripping traps and foothold traps are allowed. Trapping for fishers is an annual occurrence now, although trappers need to draw a permit. The peak year of fisher harvest occurred in 1997, when 3,644 animals were registered and pelts were valued at $33. In 2018, trappers harvested 1,137 fisher, and a pelt was worth $26.22.
As a biologist, it is easy for me to put values on animals, in terms of harvest, or dollars and cents, or even in terms of their place in the food web or the natural world. I continually gain appreciation for the value of animals in cultures, in history, and in religions. So the next starry night, look up and see if fisher is falling after freeing the songbirds from the sky world. If so, warm weather and bird song are sure to follow soon.