Have you ever caught a glimpse of a small animal—furry, tawny coloured—running across a path into an old softwood forest? Perhaps it paused briefly, (but not long enough for a good look), before dashing up a tall spruce and disappearing in the canopy.
Startled nature lovers occasionally tell me such stories. Over decades of forest excursions as a biologist, I’ve hoped to see a pine marten (Martes americana). I recently met a live marten, but in a different manner.
I was at Hope for Wildlife, a wonderful wildlife rehabilitation and rearing facility near Halifax, when one ran up my leg, and sat on my head. Apparently, I was a substitute for old-growth spruce?
Also called American marten, this member of the weasel family is about the size of a small house cat. They have a long, slender body and short legs, soft, yellowish brown fur darkening to a beautiful, deep brown, bushy tail. They’re distinguished by a tawny patch of fur on their throat and upper chest. Their large, dark, furry feet have semi-retractable claws. Even the pads of their feet are furred, an asset especially in snow.
About 60 cm (24 inches) in length from their pointed muzzle to the tip of their long tail, martens are twice as long and seven times the weight of a shorttail weasel, an animal more commonly seen in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Besides being adept tree climbers, martens are predators, preferring to hunt in mature forest habitats with conifer woods. They also spend a lot of time on the forest floor, where they forage for much of their food. They hunt primarily after dark, preying mainly on red squirrels and other small mammals. As opportunties arise, they will also eat insects, birds, eggs, fruits, nuts, amphibians, fish and shellfish.
Martens usually avoid leaving the woods or crossing open ground, where they’d become possible prey for a quiet, watchful great horned owl, bald eagle, hawk, coyote, bobcat or lynx.
Ordinarily solitary creatures, adults will find a mate in summer. The female’s small litter is born the following spring. Females prefer to give birth in a standing, hollow tree that offers more protection from larger predators like coyotes. When no such shelter is available, they may den in a hollow log on the forest floor, or under fallen trees or roots. By late summer, the young martens set out on their own, travelling independently through tree tops and searching for meals under deadfalls.
The pine marten’s population has plummeted due to on-going loss of mature forest habitats,
and the fact that they are easily trapped.
Martens were once common in forests around most of the world. In Asia and northern Europe they’re known as sable. Today they’re one of the rarest predators in eastern provinces and beyond. Their populations have plummeted due to on-going loss of mature forest habitats, and the unfortunate fact that they are easily trapped. The marten’s curious nature makes them an easy catch, even if the trap is intended for another animal.
Habitat loss is the major and increasing impediment to their survival. Forest loss, degradation and fragmentation from clearing for forest products, farming, mining, urban sprawl, roads as well as human activities such as golf courses and other recreational activities requiring cleared land all combine to destroy the habitat that martens need. A displaced marten can’t just go next door to live when its home is ruined, because more often than not, the neighbouring land has too young a forest, or none at all.
There are fewer and fewer mature woods left. Those that do exist usually aren’t connected to one another by mature, treed wildlife corridors. After 47 years of management for a wide range of nature’s needs on our 56 acres, there are plenty of standing, hollow trees for martens to have their young, and an abundance of red squirrels to chase. But there’s no healthy forest connection for them to reach this property. If an animal is lucky enough to find another suitable forest, it’s likely already occupied by martens that protect their territories.
Displaced from mature forests, martens will make do as best they can in whatever softwood forest is available, even if it’s not ideal habitat. In those cases, they often succumb to predation, starvation or they don’t have what they need to raise young to maturity, and so cannot maintain nor build their population.
In Newfoundland a sub-species of marten, Martes americana atrala, has been listed as endangered since 1996, with government recovery efforts having mixed results. In New Brunswick there’s still a trapping season for them, while in PEI they became extinct in the early 1900s.
Small numbers of martens have been live-trapped in New Brunswick and reintroduced to forested areas in Nova Scotia where they once thrived. It’s unclear how well those few animals have fared, but marten are still being reported in Cape Breton and on mainland Nova Scotia.
As of spring 2022, the American marten has been on Nova Scotia’s Species at Risk list for 21 years. But no core marten habitat on public land has been designated for protection by the provincial government, as is required under its Endangered Species Act. It’s time to change this. Let’s get on with it.
The American marten’s future depends on our understanding of their habitat needs, having respect for their right to inhabit this place we also call home, and making wise choices about how we treat the land to leave room for them to survive and hopefully thrive.
Governments have species at risk legislation which confers status to many species, but they are not conferring protection to the habitats required for endangered populations to recover. As mature woodlands continue to disappear across eastern North America, the marten’s demise may well be eminent.
The furry, bright-eyed and friendly character that sat on my head was already habituated to humans. It arrived at Hope for Wildlife as a Species at Risk, but with an overly friendly, potentially fatal attitude about people. It was subsequently seized by NS Department of Resources and Renewables staff. I don’t think of nature as a resource, but this happy, curious creature could have been a willing mascot for Hope Swinmer’s wildlife public education efforts.
The next time you travel through an evergreen forest, look for odd tracks in the snow. If the prints end at a tree, look up! You might see a curious face looking down.