BILLINGS, Mont. -- Federal wildlife officials said Wednesday that endangered species protections are not needed for the Northern Rockies fisher, a small, fanged predator that thrives in the region's remote, old growth forests.
Following a yearlong review, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that trapping, residential homebuilding, logging and other pressures do not appear to be hurting populations of the weasel-like animal or limiting its range in Montana and Idaho.
Four environmental groups in 2009 petitioned to protect fishers under the Endangered Species Act. That prompted the government to look at whether fishers could disappear from the Rockies without federal protection.
Fish and Wildlife biologists concluded that while fishers are sensitive to trapping, current harvest levels are not having a negative effect. And the biologists said habitat loss due to logging and other human causes did not appear to be harming the animals.
"The species continues to occupy its historic range and has expanded in some areas despite habitat alteration that have occurred within that range," the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement. "The Northern Rockies Mountain population of fisher is not in danger of extinction or likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future."
However, government biologists also cautioned that fishers would benefit from "precautionary measures" to protect them from habitat loss and overharvest. They said Northern Rockies fishers in Montana and Idaho were distinct from populations elsewhere in the country.
Sometimes likened to otters, fishers are agile furbearers that can reach about 15 pounds and nearly four feet long. They prey on small mammals and birds, and are the only known species to target porcupines.
Montana allows trappers to harvest a combined seven fishers annually -- an activity banned elsewhere in the West.
Defenders of Wildlife has estimated that only 500 of the animals survive in Montana and Idaho.
There have been unconfirmed reports of fishers living in Wyoming and they may have once roamed as far south as Utah, according to the group.
A small West Coast population of the animals was deemed eligible for protection in 2004, although the government said other species had priority. They remain relatively abundant in parts of the Midwest and New England.
The groups seeking more protections for the Rockies fishers will consider a federal lawsuit challenging Wednesday's ruling, said Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity.
"This is basically one of the rarest carnivores in the Rockies, and it's clearly sensitive to logging and fires," said Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Other groups involved in the petition were Friends of the Bitterroot, and Friends of the Clearwater.