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Gone a century, Pacific martens returned to central Montana

February 28, 2021 GMT
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A pine marten waits to be inspected at the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks headquarters, Monday, Feb 1, 2021, in White Sulphur Springs, Mont. (Rion Sanders/The Great Falls Tribune via AP)
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A pine marten waits to be inspected at the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks headquarters, Monday, Feb 1, 2021, in White Sulphur Springs, Mont. (Rion Sanders/The Great Falls Tribune via AP)

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — Amid the silent pines of the Little Belt Mountains, a slender hunter stalks the branches and burrows beneath the snow. Her triangular ears twitch at any hint that a tasty mouse, chipmunk or squirrel might be close by.

With its thick silky fur, bushy tail and semi-retractable claws, the Pacific marten is perfectly adapted to live and hunt in the boreal forests of northcentral Montana. It is a skilled tree climber, no bigger than a house cat and can literally gallop up a tree and leap from branch to branch, twisting in mid-air to capture its prey or to escape a hawk or owl.

Marten were once common throughout the forests of central Montana, but for nearly a century the solitary predator has been absent from the state’s island mountain ranges. Now, Pacific marten have returned to the Little Belts.

In the last two months, about two dozen marten have been released there due to a unique collaboration between Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and fur trappers from the southwestern section of the state.

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“This is one of those rare opportunities that we as a department get to do this kind of work ... to truly bring back a pretty charismatic animal to its native habitat,” Jay Kolbe, FWP wildlife biologist and project manager for the reintroduction program told the Great Falls Tribune. “This is a real conservation opportunity, and we could not do this project without that direct partnership with the trappers in southwest Montana. It just wouldn’t happen — plain and simple.”

Marten are members of the weasel family and are most closely related to mink and fishers. Various species of marten can be found in forests across Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, Russia, Japan, Canada and the United States. They continue to inhabit 17 U.S. states and are common in Montana west of the continental divide and south of U.S.Interstate 90.

The historical record does not explain exactly why marten disappeared from central Montana, but Kolbe believes it was due to a convergence of factors including unregulated trapping and short-sighted predator control programs.

“From the turn of the century and into the Great Depression, marten pelts were extremely valuable,” he said. “I’ve heard a single marten pelt might have been worth up to the equivalent of a month’s wages. There was a strong incentive to trap, and there was very little regulation on trapping during that time.”

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“Predator control was also very common,” Kolbe added. “A lot of poisoning was going on to control other predators — lacing a carcass with poison was common back then — and marten are incredibly susceptible to that. Marten weren’t affecting livestock production or anything but were collateral damage to that program. We think that by the 1920s or ’30s that they were probably gone — before the department was really keeping good records and began to regulate trapping like we do now.”

The early 20th century was a dark time for wildlife conservation in the United States as a whole. Kolbe notes that journals from the era frequently express people’s excitement at seeing a single deer or antelope, but while many species were able to gradually reestablish themselves across traditional habitats, the marten’s fear of open spaces has halted their return to central Montana.

“Their habitat use is so tied to that complex, multi-story, older forest type that they’re not able to disperse across more than three to five kilometers of non-forested habitat,” Kolbe explained. “Their likelihood of survival in areas with a lot of openings, whether it’s man-made or natural, is much less. They’re way more susceptible to avian predation (owls, eagles and hawks) and coyotes. They’re loath to even use openings within forested areas. Two miles of non-forested lower elevation habitat is enough to prevent dispersal, and once they’re extirpated from an island range they’re probably not going to get back.”

Montana’s existing population of marten is a case in point.

“South of the interstate, marten are common,” Kolbe said. “We’ve got lots of trapping records for the Gallatin and lots of marten have been trapped south of the intestate. Now you have very similar habitat on both sides of I-90 near Bozeman, but north of the interstate, even in similar habitat, they’re gone.”

Yet given the right conditions, marten have shown a high propensity for surviving and expanding within suitable habitats.

In the mid-1950s wildlife biologists released nine marten into high terrain in the Big Belt Mountains west of White Sulphur Springs, then essentially forgot about them. Other than the original documentation of their release, there were no records.

In 2016, Kolbe decided to see what he could find out about the Big Belt martens.

“I started putting out baited camera sets,” he recalled of his efforts to capture an image of the long-forgotten marten. “I had a half deer nailed to a tree and the very first set I deployed, right at the tree line up at Mount Edith, by gosh when we came in there and checked the camera I had a marten on there.”

Kolbe has since received additional reports and images from local hunters of marten in the Big Belts.

“So even that effort back then at such a small scale was apparently successful,” he said.

Similarly, marten have now repopulated the Black Hills of South Dakota following large-scale releases there in 1980 and again in 1990 through 1993. Encouraged by these and other successful reintroductions, Kolbe received approval from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to return martens to the Little Belt Mountains.

“We decided to start in the Little Belts because there’s 900,000 acres of Forest Service property and there’s good blocks of high quality habitat,” Kolbe said.

Volunteer trappers began working with FWP to capture marten in the backcountry of southwestern Montana in early December 2020. The marten are caught using live traps outfitted with an auxiliary wooden den shelter, allowing them to stay warm and to be transported safely. FWP biologists collect age, sex and genetic information from the marten before releasing them.

The marten are released in winter to avoid interfering with their breeding season, which takes place in the spring and summer. Winter also offers the captured marten some protection from marauding bears, which will sometimes destroy traps and kill any marten they find when tempted by an easy food reward.

Since the project began, close to three dozen martens have been released in the Little Belts. The near-term goal is to release a total of 60, including at least 30 females, by the end of February 2022. In the long term, Kolbe hopes to take what they’ve learned in the Little Belts and apply it to Montana’s other island mountain ranges.

“There is good predicted habitat in the Crazies and in the Bridgers that’s unoccupied now,” he said. “We’re hopeful that if we can continue to do this kind of work in other parts of the state.”

Kolbe is well aware that people who are philosophically opposed to hunting and trapping in general may be critical of recruiting trappers to help reintroduce a fur-bearing mammal into the wilderness, but he points out that American sportsman — hunters, trappers and fisherman — have always been powerful advocates for the restoration of species.

“The trappers themselves are the most effective advocates for fur-bearers in the state,” Kolbe said. They care passionately about fur-bearers in general, and the marten trappers we’re working with absolutely love marten and the opportunity to enjoy them.”

“If the department had instead chosen to hire technicians to trap marten in enough different areas in southwest Montana to get a genetically diverse sample — if that was our only option — this project would not happen,” he added. “We couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t hire that many people, and those people that we did hire would not likely have the skills to effectively capture marten the first year they tried.

“They’re checking the traps every day. They’re not able to put out the extensive lines that they would have historically, just because they’re doing it the way we need in order to keep the animal safe and in good condition. And they’re not being paid to do it. This is really, truly a volunteer effort. They’ve been an incredible partner in this, forgoing that animal that would have otherwise been harvested and sold for fur.”

At some unidentified point in the future, recreational trapping of marten will likely be reinstated in the Little Belt Mountains. Kolbe said that when that day comes, it will be a measure of the reintroduction program’s success.

“When we decide the population has recovered to the point to support some level of recreational harvest, that will mean that marten are successfully recovered in those areas,” he explained. “It means that we have a scientific basis to support extractive use of that species, and that the species is back and doing well.”

Fable, folklore and facts about marten

In Romania, marten and weasels are said to plait horses’ manes in the night, resulting in twisted and tangled manes the next morning.

Marten furs were used in Croatia during medieval times as a form of currency. Today, that country’s currency is called the Kuna, the Croatian word for marten.

The Ojibwe Indians of Canada have a Marten Clan or Waabizheshi Odoodeman. Clan members draw spiritual strength and guidance from wild marten, particularly their qualities of agility and determination.

Female marten are able to postpone giving birth for more than seven months. They can remain pregnant for up to 200 days, but the fetus only begins to develop during the last 28, ending with the birth of one to five kits.

Finnish cell phone manufacturer ‘Nokia’ derives its name from the Finnish word for marten. This reflects the fact that marten (or sable) furs were one of medieval Finland’s most valuable trading commodities.

Marten like to crawl into car-engine compartments and chew on wiring. In 2017 ‘Marderbisse’ (marten bites) ranked as Germany’s fourth-leading cause of non-collision auto damage, with marten gnawing their way through $79 million in cables. German auto insurers now offer coverage for ‘Marderbisse’ damage.

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David Murray is Natural Resources/Agriculture reporter for the Great Falls Tribune. To contact him with comments or story ideas; email dmurray@greatfallstribune.com or call (406) 403-3257.