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Biologists look for answers to pine marten mystery in Michigan (PHOTOS)

by Bob Allen for the Environment Report

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.

The 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.”

Jill Witt is a wildlife biologist with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. She has a marten caught in a wire cage tucked next to a fallen log, half buried in twigs and leaf litter.

More than 80 years ago, martens lived in big pine trees before logging, wildfire and trapping wiped them out.

“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.”

The marten that are here appear to be doing okay in the Manistee National 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 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 declares it a robust male.

“He looks healthy. Nice looking male. He’s in good weight. Good body condition.”

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. After the fit of a new radio collar meets her approval, Spriggs places the marten in a wooden box lined with a towel.

“Oh. He’s waking up.”

KEENLANCE: “They do have bit of an attitude at times. 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.”

Paul Keenlance likes the marten’s feisty attitude.

He’s a professor of wildlife biology at Grand Valley State. Keenlance thinks forest managers could make a few changes to help martens recover without a lot of restrictions or costs.

“Is the ecosystem going to collapse because there aren’t martens? Well no, probably not. 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.

Jimmie Mitchell is head of natural resources for the tribe.

“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. We all interacted. We keyed-in on what each other did. We learned a lot from our environment and how the animals acted.”

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. Mitchell says the tribe wants to hold on to those traditions because they still have value today.