The interesting history of the marten
BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
One of my recent Facebook posts shared a photo of our only state listed endangered mammal species, the American Marten. It has historically gone by a few other names, including American sable, pine marten, ranger’s cat, sable, tha (in Chippewa) and Waabezheshi (in Ojibwe). As with most other species with “American” in the common name, it was likely named after a similar old world species. The sable in Japan and Russia bears a striking resemblance to our marten.
Marten are members of the mustelid family, along with badgers, weasels and otters. (They were also related to skunks until a couple of years ago when skunks were officially moved out of the weasel family and into their own family.) Martens are carnivores (mostly) and feed heavily on red squirrels, flying squirrels, mice, grouse, and snowshoe hares. They are giving birth to their young this time of year, late March into early April. They select a hollow tree or stump, possibly a fallen log or tipped up root ball for a den and give birth to three or four young under decent circumstances. Martens really like old, dense conifer forests, and it is thought that at one time they occupied most of the forested regions of Wisconsin.
Trapping marten for their fur was likely the main contributor to their eventual disappearance from the state. Fur trappers, buyers, and traders kept excellent records, which allows us to look as far back as 1803. Hundreds and even upwards of a thousand marten pelts were bought in a single transaction. This pace of trapping and trading was not sustainable, though, and by about 1875, marten were starting to become rather scarce as a trading commodity in the newly founded state of Wisconsin. The occasional animal was spotted or reported over the next half century, but trapping was banned in 1921 and in 1972 it was placed on the state endangered species list. In 1956, the state’s conservation department attempted to re-establish a population by releasing five animals that had been captured near Kalispell, Montana. Three years later a few more animals were released. There are no records of this stocking attempt on Stockton Island, Ashland County, succeeding. It is unlikely we would attempt a reintroduction with so few animals today.
Subsequent efforts by natural resource agencies, nongovernment organization and tribal representatives were more successful; trapping and relocation work continued through the 1970s, 80s and even through 2010 and monitoring has been ongoing. There are two main locations where this management and evaluation occur. Between these sites on the Chequamegon and Nicolet National Forests, there are an estimated 500-1,000 martens. Our closest marten reintroduction area is bounded by WI 32, old Military Rd., WI 70 and WI 55. That means it contains the far eastern edge of Oneida County, SW Vilas County, and mostly overlaps Forest County. Trapping to reduce marten predators, including fishers, coyote and bobcat, is permitted in this area under restrictions but trapping marten is still illegal today.
While this may be Wisconsin’s only state endangered mammal, it is not protected by the Federal Threatened and Endangered Species Act because it is present in other states in higher numbers. In fact, I recall a friend from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan telling me about a cabin owner up there that would sit on his deck and feed cheese puffs to martens by hand. It is protected in some states and trapped in others. To become a legal trappable furbearer in Wisconsin it would need to expand in numbers and geographic distribution above and beyond its two reintroduction sites and remain stable or continue to increase in both number and distribution for more than a decade beyond delisting.
While this is just one of Wisconsin’s 72 mammal species, and is among the rarest, I find its history, management and life activities captivating. If you find Wisconsin’s only state listed threatened mammal an interesting topic, you can read “Management and Conservation Plan for American Martens in Wisconsin” which is available online. It has trapping records, distribution maps, and much more information than I could possibly provide—you could become an American Marten expert.
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. His work in natural resource agencies across the country provided opportunities to gain experience with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook. Email questions to MaskedBiologist@charter.net.