Conserve Wildlife Blog

Wild New Jersey Revisited: A Predator Returns to the State’s Rugged Northwest

February 19th, 2021

by David Wheeler

Fisher photo by Josh More via Flickr Creative Commons.

Wild New Jersey Revisited is a monthly series of excerpts from Conserve Wildlife Foundation executive director David Wheeler’s 2011 book Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State. Today we focus on the surprising return of a rare predator to New Jersey, and the late field biologist who foretold it – then documented it.

Excerpt from Chapter 2:

The Carnivore Corridor of Stokes State Forest

On a frosty winter morning, I join a fellow adventurer for a sunrise hike into Tillman Ravine. This cold is the kind that takes your breath away, the kind that makes it hard to notice anything else – until I descend into the ravine. The rushing mountain stream twists and turns, crashing over jagged boulders and toppled hemlocks. Patches of ice coat the surfaces of riverside boulders, some icicles growing upward from the waterfall mist. Heavy recent snows and rains have the stream flowing higher than normal, overrunning some of the trail. This is one wild place.

It is easy, on this early morning, with no sound but the crashing torrent, to imagine the wildlife that lives here. A mother bear warily leading her cubs down the steep mountain slope for a drink. A mink slinking stealthily along the boulders in search of its next meal. A river otter family tumbling in the currents downstream.

One visionary wildlife researcher is doing a lot more than imagining that. Charlie Kontos is seeing it all. Through his motion-detector cameras and wilderness tracking, through his exhaustive historical research and coordination with wildlife geneticists, he is leading the charge to ensure that the species we nearly lost are still welcome here in the wilds of northwestern New Jersey. For Kontos, that safe haven cannot be some isolated pocket of land. We must restore the active wildlife corridor that connects to the Catskills and the Appalachians and the Adirondacks, all the way up into New England and the great boreal forest of Canada.

Return of a Forest Legend

I meet Kontos on a December afternoon in Stokes State Forest. The park is empty but for the cars of hunters parked intermittently along the forest roads – their gunshots ring out every so often. In his early thirties, Kontos is friendly and enthusiastic. When he was young, he would spend hours studying maps of North America, letting his imagination whisk him away to the northern haunts of the porcupine and wolverine, the caribou and moose. He would read about wildlife across the world and pioneering researchers like Alan Rabinowitz, who tracked jaguar in the jungles of Belize. Kontos was hooked.

Source: Canadian Geographic

“I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get to those places, so I started looking into New Jersey, what was here. We had elk, fisher, martens – maybe some are still here.”

After all, the forests had come back to claim much of New Jersey and the northeast. Beaver, otter, black bear, and bobcat had returned to numbers near their previous levels. We need to reintroduce some of the other species we removed so long ago, Kontos thought. Cougars were fascinating – yet the public probably wasn’t ready to reintroduce such a top predator. But fishers? His academic advisors told him it could never happen. Like nature’s Don Quixote, Kontos was tilting at wildlife windmills.

But something told Kontos differently. The fisher – a tree-climbing, wolverine-like predator larger than a woodchuck – is most commonly found in the Adirondacks and Canada. Kontos felt certain it was already back in New Jersey. People just didn’t realize it yet.

He set up his first motion-trigger cameras in the remote wilds of northwestern New Jersey. The first six months produced not a single image of a fisher. Kontos was nearly ready to give up the dream when he uploaded the latest photo stills onto his laptop one morning. There it was – a clear, unambiguous photo. The fisher was back in New Jersey.

Hair Samples and Gusto!

We hike into rugged Stokes backcountry. Hemlocks tower overhead, and boulders litter the ground, each rock uniquely spattered with its own pattern of lichens and moss. Forest ferns shoot up between the rocks. We reach one of Kontos’s cameras, strategically positioned low to the ground to trigger at the slightest sign of movement. A few feet away, a wire hair snare extends out to snag a hair off passing wildlife. How does he know an animal will pass by this very location? For starters, it’s a worn trail, an obvious travel route. But Kontos realizes he needs to game the odds a bit. He opens a bottle of Gusto.

“What’s Gusto?” I ask.

“It’s a special lure of ground-up skunk’s anus soaked in garlic. My landlord called me and said I had a delivery. It was Gusto and cougar urine,” he says with a grin. “Let’s just say it was an odoriferous package.”

I take a whiff. To call it pungent would be a vast understatement. “What does your girlfriend think of it?” I ask while holding back tears from the acrid scent.

“I had a girlfriend,” he laughs, “but not since I got the Gusto!”

Whatever the reason, Kontos’s camera traps are producing serious results. Over the last four years, he has captured 20 different images of fishers, plus countless snaps of other species – coyote, bobcat, bear, and wild turkey – in their most remote habitat. His hair snares snagged 200 samples in a single recent summer, and even though most are from common species like the Virginia opossum and raccoon, the few predator catches make it all worthwhile.

Ten Years Gone

Kontos’s thrilling 2006 discovery of the fisher confirmed the return of a creature thought to be extirpated from New Jersey over a century earlier. The fisher is incredibly unique – its name doesn’t fit its arboreal lifestyle, it is one of the few animals that regularly kill porcupines here in New Jersey and elsewhere, and its call is an eerie and terrifying scream. In the years since his discovery, there have been scores of additional fisher sightings in New Jersey, including the first documentation of young fisher kits and a breeding pair. And last February, a fisher was found in a live trap in Wantage.

Sadly, the fisher’s recovery has been bittersweet, as we lost the promising young scientist who never gave up hope of their presence. Kontos passed away unexpectedly from cardiac arrest soon after my book went to print, a devastating loss to New Jersey’s conservation world. Charlie’s passion for wildlife and optimism for the future inspired me and so many others. Rutgers University – where he had been a doctoral candidate – dedicated a kiosk at their ecological preserve to honor him. I also like to think that every new fisher sighting in New Jersey is another tribute to Charlie Kontos’s living legacy.

– David Wheeler, February 2021

Click here to read Charlie Kontos’s own summary of the fisher for Conserve Wildlife Foundation’s Species Spotlight.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “Wild New Jersey Revisited” – a visit with the seals of Sandy Hook.

Purchase your own copy of Wild New Jersey from the CWF Store today!

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3 Responses to “Wild New Jersey Revisited: A Predator Returns to the State’s Rugged Northwest”

  1. Rick Weiman says:

    If there are so few of them in NJ are they listed as endangered or threatened in the state? Have there been any more recent studies of their population by CWF biologists or NJ F&W? Thank you.

  2. Ethan Gilardi says:

    Hi Rick, there have been moves to list certain populations of fishers in the US as endangered, but nothing has been able to pass the political process just yet. As for New Jersey, they were considered extirpated (meaning the New Jersey population was considered locally extinct) until recently. From that first sighting in 2006, there have only be a handful of other confirmed sightings. The New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife’s Endangered and Non-game Species Program has been accepting reports of sightings and working to monitor and track suspected individuals, but that’s an ongoing process for such a rare and elusive animal. Hopefully soon we’ll be able to confirm a breeding population here in NJ, but for now we’re keeping our eyes peeled and noses to the ground!

  3. Jim Merritt says:

    This is such a great article on Fisher. I spent a lot of time roaming around Stokes in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, but I never had a chance to see one of these incredible animals. Your description of Charlie Kontos and his work was great! I hope your article will inspire more young people to work on similar projects.
    Thank you so much for this blog and all the work done by CWF of NJ.
    Jim Merritt