Nearly a hundred years ago a small animal that most people have never heard of was wiped out of the northern forest.
In the mid-1980’s, wildlife biologists reintroduced the pine marten in two locations in the Lower Peninsula. They thought the population would take off and spread but it hasn’t.
And now researchers are trying to find out why.
Pine marten is the smallest predator in the northern forest. It’s a member of the weasel family, related to otters and ferrets. It weighs roughly two to two-and-a half pounds, has big furry ears, a pointed nose, a bright orange patch on its chest and a bit of a temper.
“I don’t know how big of an animal they would take on but they do have a reputation for being quite fierce,” says Jill Witt, a wildlife biologist with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.
She has caught a marten caught in a wire cage tucked next to a fallen log, half buried in twigs and leaf litter. And she says this is just about the only way a person would ever see one.
“I’ve never seen one prior to this. I think most people can say they’ve never seen a marten in the forest,” Witt says. “They’re very elusive.”
Part of Old Forest
Martens feed mostly on small rodents of the forest…voles, mice, squirrels, chipmunks. But it will go after animals twice its size, such as snowshoe hare.
It thrives where there are a lot of big downed dead trees. Back in the day before logging and wildfire changed the Michigan forest, they hung out in big old pines and hemlocks. And fur trappers prized the animal for its pelt.
But now the marten seems to have adapted to the oaks and beech and maple of the mature hardwood forest.
“And I think marten really is a good example of a species that can do well if the forest is allowed to recover and return to and continue on towards a more mature, possible even old growth state,” Jill Witt says.
How It’s Doing
The marten that are here appear to be doing OK in the Manistee forest. But the population doesn’t appear to be growing or spreading.
Researchers think one reason might be that the prime habitat is isolated. So there aren’t places in between for martens to get a toe hold.
But the study also is looking at other possibilities.
Veterinarian Maria Spriggs uses a gas to anesthetize the trapped marten. She lays it out on a cloth on the tail gate of a pick-up truck and monitors its heart rate and oxygen intake. She’s the vet at Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville Indiana.
She takes blood, urine and fecal samples and does a brief inspection for parasites such as ticks. And she declares it a robust male.
“He looks healthy. Nice looking male,” Spriggs says. “He’s in good weight. Good body condition. His hair coat is healthy, shiny.”
Later, Dr. Spriggs will do an intensive work-up of the blood samples. One of the main points of the study is to find out if there are signs of in-breeding or disease. That could be a key reason why the animals aren’t doing better.
Small Changes Could Help
After the fit of a new radio collar meets her approval, Spriggs places the marten in a wooden box lined with a towel. The anesthesia generally wears off in about fifteen minutes.
“They do have bit of an attitude at times,” says Paul Keenlance. “Although I guess if a UFO plopped down and knocked me out and put a collar on me and punched a hole in my ear and all kinds of things I might not be real friendly when I woke up either.” He’s a professor of wildlife biology at Grand Valley State.
And he says compared with larger animals like wolves and bears, martens are much easier to catch and collar and track. So he expects the study will produce a lot of good data.
To Keenlance, that means a realistic chance that forest managers could make a few changes to help martens recover without a lot of restrictions or costs. Something he thinks is worth the effort.
“Is the ecosystem going to collapse because there aren’t martens? Well no, probably not,” Keenlance says. “But it is, I think, a healthier ecosystem and more fully functioning with as many of the original components as you can have.”
For American Indians, the marten isn’t just related to the health of the forest but it’s also connected with the health of the people. That’s why the Little River Band is putting so much effort into the research.
“We look at most species that were here during the time prior to the big change that occurred that those all were part of our family,” says Jimmie Mitchell. “We all interacted. We keyed-in on what each other did. We learned a lot from our environment and how the animals acted.” Mitchell is head of natural resources for the tribe.
There is a tradition for families to identify certain animals as part of their clan. Members of the marten clan were warriors and stood for courage. And Mitchell says the tribe wants to hold on to those traditions because they still have value today.