Elusive Ghosts of the Deep Forest

by: Dan Banks
WINTER 1994/95

There was no doubt about it! The dark brown, bushy-tailed animal that scampered across the porch and up into a nearby tree in pursuit of a red squirrel was a pine marten. Alfred Timmons could not recall having seen one of these animals around his home in Pleasant Bay, Inverness county, for more than 50 years. Several days later he saw it again. During the same period, residents of a nearby religious order also saw an animal that could only have been a marten.

These events happened during March and April of 1993. I was as excited as the staff at the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. I have been keeping records of marten and marten track sightings for many years. This was the first time several people had seen one, or maybe more than one, animal at different times within a small area and over a short period of time. It was a convincing argument for the existence of this rare animal on Cape Breton island.

A member of the weasel family, marten are the size of small house cats. They have a pointed face with large ears and dark, small eyes. Short legs support the long, thin body and bushy tail. Marten are typically brown on the back with a lighter coloured head and dark legs. The small orange or yellow throat patch is an identifying feature. Their fur is dense and silky with long, glossy guard hairs.

Marten breed between late June and early September, but the fertilized egg does not develop in the female's body until it is implanted on the wall of the uterus the following February or March. This is known as delayed implantation. Two to four blind, helpless young are born 27 days later. Females often select a high tree cavity in which to give birth and raise their young. After about two months, the young are weaned from the female and move around freely with her.

These creatures prefer mature softwood or mixed wood forests for habitat. Fallen trees and brush piles provide marten access to small mammals living under the snow in winter. Patches of younger forest are valuable because small mammal and bird populations, which form the bulk of a marten's diet, are found here. Large clearcut, fires, and insect infestations result in the loss of marten habitat.

Marten eat a variety of foods, but favour things they can easily obtain. Small woodland mice and voles are probably their number one food item. Snowshoe hare and red squirrel are eaten when available. Birds, birds' eggs, insects, berries, and fruits are also part of their diet. Marten readily feed on deer or moose carrion, especially in winter.

The marten's ability to pursue red squirrels through the tree tops is legendary. They are even able to turn their hind limbs in a such way that allows them to climb headfirst down a vertical tree trunk. On the ground, marten travel with the typical bounding gait of a member of the weasel family and slow to a walk when investigating things of interest. While they can travel long distances, marten do not have large home ranges. Males may live their entire life within a six km2 area, while females may live in a smaller area.

Marten occur from Newfoundland westward through to Alaska, mostly in the northern boreal forests, and down into the mountain ranges of the Northwestern United States. Many areas have harvestable populations and, in areas with suitable habitat, evidence shows populations are increasing. More marten are trapped in North America today than any time in recorded history. In the mid 1980s, Canada was producing about 152,000 pelts each year.

Nova Scotia has not allowed the taking of marten for many years. As far back as 1867, approximately 1,000 marten pelts were shipped annually from the province. Only one skin was exported in 1931. Marten were close to extinction in most parts of the province, but a few still existed in and around the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Individual sightings, track reports, and the occasional accidentally-trapped animal has turned up on the highland plateau and associated valleys. During a period of unusually heavy trapping activity for other furbearing species, six animals were turned in to the Department of Lands and Forestry during the winters of 1979, 1980, and 1982. No animals have died of any cause since these captures.

During the fall and winter of 1993-94, the department attempted to confirm the continued presence of marten using a technique designed to "capture" footprints. Pine boards were used to make 24 open-ended boxes, each measuring 22 cm high, 22 cm wide, and 80 cm long. Each box was fitted with a removable flat metal plate on the bottom. Before the plate was placed in the trap, the surface was covered with a heavy layer of soot. Any animal walking on the plate would leave clear tracks on the plate. They would also carry the soot out on their feet and leave tracks outside the box. The boxes were baited and placed several feet high in a tree. Boxes were scattered throughout the Highlands and surrounding areas and were checked as often as time would allow. An automatic recording camera was to be installed at any site where marten frequented.

Results of the project were inconclusive. On one of our first checks, we became cautiously optimistic when a box seemed to have a couple of marten tracks interspersed with squirrel tracks. We eventually learned that red squirrels take perverse pleasure in playing tricks on wildlife researchers. By jumping into the air and landing with all four feet bunched together on the track plate, they are able to make a passable imitation of a single marten track. A couple of plates placed in the marten box at Two Rivers Wildlife Park yielded a set of known track samples, so this ruse did not fool us again. Marten tracks were not recorded at any of the box sites during the study period, although tracks that may have been left by marten were recorded during other surveys. We hope to continue the search this winter, but will confine our efforts in smaller, more manageable areas where we can check the sites frequently.

I have records of at least 42 sightings of pine marten since 1974. Nine of these are of animals "in hand". There is no doubt in my mind that we have a small population of marten on Cape Breton Island. Maybe this winter we'll get lucky and capture one on film.