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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking protection for a weasel-like species known as the fisher, which it says is threatened in part because of the rat poison that's being used on marijuana plantations.
The pot connection was laid out Monday in an announcement seeking comment from scientists and the public on a proposal to protect the West Coast fisher as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Fishers belong to a family of mammals that also includes weasels, mink, martens and otters. They're about the size of house cats, and make their homes in the cavities of trees.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said fishers have "virtually disappeared" from much of their forest habitat in Washington, Oregon and California.
"This is a complex and challenging issue, because threats to the fisher vary across its range," Robyn Thorson, director of the service's Pacific region, said in a statement. Among those threats are habitat loss due to wildfires and timber harvesting practices — as well as the relatively recent threat posed by rat poison.
"Rodenticide use has been verified at illegal marijuana cultivation sites within occupied fisher habitat on public, private and tribal lands in California," the service said in Monday's statement. "Although the service does not know the full extent to which rodenticide exposure causes injury or mortality of fishers, rodenticide exposure in fishers has been documented in fisher populations in the Klamath Mountains and Southern Sierra Nevada, as well as in the reintroduced population at Olympic National Park in Washington."
Erin Williams, who oversaw the Fish and Wildlife analysis, told The Associated Press that the poisons are regulated, but that the rules have done little to stop their misuse.
Marijuana cultivation is likely to rise in Washington state, where recreational use was recently legalized. Medical marijuana is legal in Oregon and California, and efforts are under way in both those states to loosen restrictions on recreational use.
The service estimated that there are 300 or fewer fishers left in California's Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, and a few hundred to 4,000 in the Klamath Mountains of northern California and southern Oregon. About 40 fishers were reintroduced in the Northern Sierra Nevadas beginning in 2009. The species also has been reintroduced to Washington's Olympic Peninsula and Oregon's Crater Lake area.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is due to publish the formal proposal for protecting the species on Tuesday via the Federal Register. A public hearing and several informational meetings have been scheduled in California, Oregon and Washington during November and December, in the course of a 90-day comment period. A final decision on the species' status is to be issued by this time next year.