NORTH ALLIS TOWNSHIP - After spotting a fisher while on a walk with her husband, Onaway area resident Melissa Sayers helped biologists verify the species' return to Michigan's Lower Peninsula.
Earlier in May, Sayers and her husband Nate were walking on Bonz Beach Highway near Onaway State Park. They noticed a neighbor's dog was barking at something in a tree by the road, and when the two of them went to investigate, they saw a black, furry critter they initially mistook for a bear cub.
"It kind of scurried up the tree a little further, and we saw the long tail on it," she said. "We knew it wasn't a bear, but we weren't sure what it was."
A crowd eventually gathered around the tree, including Sayers' 16-year-old son, DJ, she said. He told Melissa he thought the animal was a fisher, and a quick check online verified his theory. Someone took photos and a video, and Sayers posted them to a social networking site. One of her friends, who works as a biologist, told her to contact the Department of Natural Resources.
"I did that, and within a day I had a bunch of people calling me," she said.
Sayers and her family haven't seen the fisher since, but the photographs she and others sent to the DNR gave biologists the proof they needed to verify reports they've heard over the years.
Jennifer Kleitch, a DNR biologist based in Atlanta, said the species was believed to have disappeared from the Lower Peninsula at the start of the 1900s. Trappers had no regulations then, and loggers had clear-cut most of the peninsula, destroying habitat for many animals.
"We've had several species that disappeared from lower Michigan in the early 1900s and late 1800s, and a lot of it was due to over-harvest," she said.
When Kleitch and others with the department got calls from people with photographs of the fisher Sayers spotted, department staff decided to check it out, she said. Biologists do the same with any report of a rare species. While trappers and conservation officers have reported fishers in the Lower Peninsula before, biologists haven't had the confirmation until now.
"It's definitely possible that we have others in the Lower Peninsula," she said.
Fishers are related to badgers, and are one of the few species to successfully hunt porcupines, Kleitch said. They go after the quill-covered animals by attacking their faces and flipping them over. Their diets mainly consist of other smaller mammals, like mice and rabbits. They'll also eat dead animals, fruits and nuts.
Male fishers range in length from 35 to 47 inches, and can weigh as much as 13 pounds, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Females are a little smaller. Adults are light brown to darkish-brown, and they have long, slender bodies, short legs and a long tail. Fishers are related to martens, which are smaller and can be found in the Lower Peninsula.
Sayers typically sees wildlife on her walks, and initially didn't think seeing the fisher was a big deal, she said. Since then, the DNR has issued a press release announcing the encounter, and she's been interviewed by several news outlets. Now, she's hoping for a bigger find.
"I just hope I'm the one that gets photographic proof of a cougar," she said.