By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The federal government on Wednesday said a mammal called the fisher does not warrant endangered species protections in the northern Rocky Mountains, because the animal is not in danger of extinction.
Environmentalists had claimed populations of the fisher, which is a cousin to the weasel, were falling in Idaho and Montana because of trapping and logging.
The fisher is unique to North America and lives in old-growth forests, where it preys on everything from porcupines to birds. The animal also is prized for its fur.
Over-harvesting of the fisher in some parts of the northern Rockies caused states such as Idaho to outlaw trapping them decades ago, and Montana regulates their trapping.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made its determination against giving the fisher endangered species status, in the absence of population estimates or trends in the two states.
But government biologists said they have no evidence fishers are on the decline in the region.
Conservation groups had argued the fisher will likely disappear in the northern Rockies without habitat and other protections provided under the federal Endangered Species Act.
They said fishers, which may have disappeared altogether from Wyoming, are rarely found even when sought by government biologists.
"Fishers are clearly one of the rarest, most imperiled predators in the northern Rockies," said Mike Leahy, Rocky Mountain region director for the group Defenders of Wildlife.
In 2004, the government determined fishers in northern California and southwest Oregon should be added to the endangered species list. But that move has been postponed because of a backlog of higher priority species.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Peter Bohan)