The center is among four environmental watchdog groups that said they would sue in an effort to force the US Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, to take steps to protect the animal.

The Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center on Thursday filed a formal 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Department of Interior for failure to list the Pacific fisher as an endangered species.

The center is among four environmental watchdog groups that said they would sue in an effort to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, to take steps to protect the animal. Joining the Ashland-based center in the announcement was the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, the Sierra Forest Legacy in Sacramento and the Environmental Protection Information Center in Arcata, Calif.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to move ahead and begin recovering this important species," said Joseph Vaile, campaign director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. "They said in 2004 that the Pacific fisher needs to be put on the list but that they didn't have the resources to do that. We've been waiting six years for them to do something to protect it. They haven't."

He was referring to a petition from the four groups that year asking the agency to protect the fisher under the Endangered Species Act.

The agency concurred in 2004 that the animal, which is related to the mink and otter, warranted protection under the act, acknowledged Sue Livingston, a wildlife biologist working out of the agency's Portland office.

Because of limited funding provided by Congress, the agency did not have the funding to list it and launch a program to protect it, she said. However, the agency did put it on its endangered species candidates list, she said, which means it is reviewed annually.

"As a candidate species, we go back and review its status as well as that of all the candidates," she said.

The Pacific fisher is at priority No. 6, with No. 1 being the top priority for inclusion on the list, based on several factors, including its existing population, immediacy of threats and the magnitude of those threats, she said. Multiple species may be listed at the same priority, she noted, adding she did not know how many species were listed as a higher priority than the fisher.

Meanwhile, the wildlife service is also working with other agencies related to the fisher's status, she said.

"The fisher is definitely not sitting on the back burner," she said.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife recently launched a three-year study on the DNA of the Pacific fisher, to see if it has bred with other introduced fishers.

Despite its name, the fisher doesn't eat fish. It preys largely on small mammals, snowshoe hares, porcupines and birds, and also eats carrion, fruit and truffles. Because it is the only animal that regularly preys on porcupines — which often kill or damage small trees — the timber industry reintroduced the fisher to many parts of the southern Cascade range in Oregon.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the agency needs to take more demonstrative steps to protect the animal.

"The fisher and hundreds of other species have been waiting too long for protection," he said. "The failure to protect the fisher is nothing but foot dragging."

The Pacific fisher is one of 249 species that are designated as candidates for listing as endangered species, he noted.

He and Vaile said the Obama administration has proposed to cut funding for listing of endangered species by 5 percent. The current administration has protected only two species under the Endangered Species Act, compared to an average 65 species per year by the Clinton administration, they add.

The Fish & Wildlife Service has determined the Pacific fisher is no longer found in more than 80 percent of its range, which included forests in western Washington, western Oregon and California. Its native populations are now only found in extreme southwestern Oregon and a smaller pocket in the southern Sierra Nevada range.

"The fisher is one of the least known but coolest critters in the forest," Vaile said of the forest carnivore whose population was decimated first by trapping, then by loss of forest habitat. "The Klamath-Siskiyou mountains are a stronghold for the native Pacific fisher in the West."

Paul Fattig is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.