N.D. animals slip under radar
The list of creatures and critters I've never witnessed in North Dakota is much longer than I'd prefer. While I've watched North Dakota prairie chickens, bighorn sheep and peregrine falcons, I've yet to see a whooping crane or a live sage grouse,...
The list of creatures and critters I've never witnessed in North Dakota is much longer than I'd prefer. While I've watched North Dakota prairie chickens, bighorn sheep and peregrine falcons, I've yet to see a whooping crane or a live sage grouse, among others.
But just because I've haven't seen one doesn't mean they aren't out there. And that also holds true for a few relatively unknown and unseen North Dakota furbearers -- fishers, martens and otters. For good reason, species such as deer, pheasants, geese and ducks generate the lion's share of interest in discussions about North Dakota's wildlife, but these under-the-radar inhabitants are becoming part of the unique fabric of North Dakota outdoors.
In 2006, researchers from Frostburg State University, Maryland, and Penn State University initiated a project to determine the status and distribution of fishers, American martens and river otters in North Dakota. The study, which will run through the 2009 winter, is part of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's effort to learn more about rare species, and is funded through the State Wildlife Grants program.
Fishers and martens, scientists said, were considered gone from the state more than a century ago, while river otters were found years ago in all the major streams, but never in great numbers.
The search for all three species is centered mainly in north-central and northeastern North Dakota, including the forested Turtle Mountains and Pembina Hills. Fishers and martens are forest creatures and are as much at home in trees as they are on land. River otters, as their name implies, live in aquatic environments, including rivers, streams and tributaries, and we're seeing something unique happening with these carnivores returning to North Dakota.
Not counting those animals detected by researchers, there have been 41 verified records of fishers in North Dakota since 1976, with 90 percent occurring since 2000. By county, the greatest record of fishers is Grand Forks County, followed by Pembina and Walsh counties. The verified accounts have increased because researchers are searching in earnest for them.
"With the river otters, for example, we are finding a lot more signs of them than we thought we would going in," Game and Fish biologist Sandy Johnson said.
While the search for otters is concentrated mainly in northeastern North Dakota, Johnson said the department has records of the animals along the Sheyenne, Souris and Missouri rivers.
To track the locations of fishers and martens, researchers are using track plates and
trail cameras. Basically, the animals are lured into the sites by scent or bait where, it is
hoped they'll investigate and walk across sooted aluminum plates and leave black
prints on white paper.
Fishers and martens, it turns out, are very inquisitive creatures, which works in the favor of researchers. American martens are smaller than fishers, and have been reported mainly in the Turtle Mountains. This is somewhat unexpected as martens are typically associated with mature coniferous forests, and the Turtle Mountains are not dominated by conifers and therefore are not considered classic marten habitat.
Fishers for the most part have been located farther east along the northern Red River Valley in the Red, Forest, Tongue and Turtle rivers. Similar to martens, the habitat fishers are using isn't classic for the species, yet they seem to be making the best of what is out there. Researchers are finding them along river drainages because that's where much of the forest habitat in North Dakota is found.
Indeed, as the landscape slowly changes, so does the diversity of species that come and go. I, for one, am hoping these relatively new arrivals stick around awhile, until I get a chance to glimpse one in the wild.
Leier is a biologist for the Game and Fish Department. Reach him at