Fishers are small predators in the weasel family known to naturalists for being elusive and fierce deep-forest dwellers; they're said to be one of the few animals that can hunt and eat porcupine, despite their formidable quills.

But in the Western U.S., they may be more endangered than thought, according to a new study by the Wildlife Conservation Societ y, the Hoopa Valley Tribe and the University of Massachusetts. The population density of fishers in the Hoopa tribe's lands in Northern California has plummeted 73% in just seven years, researchers say. The study was published in The Wildlife Society Bulletin.

The house-cat sized animal may be suffering from another predator, the larger bobcat, though changes in prey, habitat and diseases may also be factors.

The results are considered preliminary, but may be significant for fishers in Western North America. There, populations have been in decline, and the sub-population in the region is a candidate for Endangered Species Act protections. Fishers also live in the U.S. Northeast and adjacent parts of Canada, and their populations there are not considered to be at risk, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That said, their numbers are far lower across the continent than once was the case; colonization and deforestation led drove them out of many lands in previous generations.

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