Of fishers, porcupines and balance in nature


The fishers have come back to where I live — thank God. I saw one loping across a gravel road late this fall, bigger than a weasel, smaller than an otter, brownish black, slipping like a shadow into the tall grass.

They’ve been gone for a long, long time, and their return set me to wondering  what else was happening. I remembered the black bear sign I had seen last summer — just once, mind you — and so I began asking around, and yes, bears are back. Not many. Three or four at most. Young John, whose father old John lives on a farm next to us, said just last weekend that he had seen bear tracks in the snow on our lake.

And apparently there are a couple of bobcats in the neighbourhood. Bobcats had been gone as long as the fishers.

What’s more, otters are returning. They have a hankering for beaver lodges, so they chase the beaver out and move in. The proof of this isn’t so happy. Another neighbour hires a trapper to keep his land free of beaver and the trapper, who sets his traps at beaver lodges, has been catching otters instead of beavers.

Then there’s the woman who, in another life, at another time, was surely a Druid. She loves the forest as she would a sister. She tells me « the lichen population is increasing.’’ I can’t confirm that; I haven’t lived here long enough. But if it’s true, it means that air pollution has dropped significantly.

For me, the fishers are especially welcome. They’re a natural enemy of porcupines, and we’ve been plagued by porcupines.

A male fisher can weigh seven kilograms and be a metre long, including his tail which is a third of his length. A female will be not quite as long and much lighter. They have short legs and strong claws for climbing.

Before the fishers returned, we could count 15 to 20 porcupines on a good day. They killed a lot of trees, and stripped the crowns of others. For three years we debated shooting them, and though I resolved to do it time and again, I never could quite bring myself to borrow a gun.

I did discover that if I painted a strip of tar around a trunk, porcupines wouldn’t climb the tree. But you can safely do that only once. By the third application, solvents in the tar will kill the tree.

So, now that fishers have routed the porcupines, I rejoice. And take great solace in nature’s ability to find a balance.

Around our place, however, we’re still far from a balance. Fishers also prey on squirrels, rabbits, and birds. They are as fast as a cat. This winter we have far fewer squirrels, and I don’t see nearly as many rabbit tracks as I did last winter. And there are fewer birds around the feeders.

Because there were way too many porcupines, we probably have too many fishers. So another adjustment will be in the making — if trappers leave the fishers alone, that is.

Their fur is valuable and it was trapping that removed fishers from the area in the first place.

No doubt there will be calls to « manage’’ the fisher population. We humans have the bizarre notion that we can manage nature, as if nature needs needs our help. What we need to manage is ourselves.

We live north of Gananoque in eastern Ontario, where the Canadian shield slides southward, shrugging blackened outcrops into its wake as it sheers around lakes and pauses for the rivers that cross it like veins in a hand. It is a grand place for animals.

My druid-ish friend is especially delighted with the return of the otters. « They’re such a delight,’’ she says. « It’s very important that we keep the animals we have.’’

« But, why,’’ say I?

« Because without animals Man’s heart will break for loneliness.’’

She’s from the old ways, so I don’t remind her how we frown on referring to humankind as Man. Besides, her way of saying it has the poetry of a Biblical declaration.

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