Prove your humanity

This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of our stories here

After a century, a little mammal with a velvety coat might be coming back to Pennsylvania’s forests. Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners directed the Bureau of Wildlife Management to develop a 10-year plan for the reintroduction and management of American martens for final approval next year.

The American marten is a slender-bodied weasel, weighing just 1 to 3 pounds. It lived in the forests of Pennsylvania until the early 1900s, when martens disappeared from the state due to massive deforestation and unregulated harvesting.

To learn more, The Allegheny Front’s intern Ben Winslow spoke with Thomas Keller, a wildlife biologist with the Game Commission, who worked on the initial feasibility assessment for reintroducing martens to Pennsylvania. 

LISTEN to their conversation

Ben Winslow: Why is now the time to begin looking at reintroducing them? Have we solved a lot of those issues that led to the original population decline? 

Tom Keller: Yeah, so we’re looking at it now because we’ve actually done quite a bit of restoration work or ecological restoration work throughout Pennsylvania. And so the first part of our initial assessment was to determine is there habitat still available. 

That’s where we built a spatial model or spatial habitat suitability model to look at the entire state and try to determine, first, is there habitat? And second, is it high quality? Is there enough of it in quantity? And then is there enough of it in connectivity? It is very connected, contiguous, which is important for a marten because they have such a large home range. 

As far as the reason why we’re pursuing it now is because we have already done, again, some restoration work, some reintroduction work with other species. This is one of the final species that we have the opportunity to do that with. 

Winslow: What is the American marten’s habitat? 

Keller: So that’s a tricky question as it is with any species’ habitat. But with the marten, the best way that I can describe it is what we would call a structurally complex, mature forest. And we have a lot of cavities throughout, whether that’s dead standing [trees] or live trees, which cavities are very important for marten. The understory is very important, along with all the structure on the ground, to allow marten to get underneath the snow. Snow is very important for marten. 

Winslow: Why do we need to introduce and what positives would we see from bringing back the American marten? 

Keller: What we did is as part of this assessment we just completed, we looked at a variety of different reasons across the spectrum. So we looked at ecological reasons. This was a native species to Pennsylvania. As with many of our other native species, we’ve tried to reintroduce those species back to the ecological community. We know that there’s a missing link right now without the American marten. 

We don’t know all of the ways that the marten would contribute to that overall ecosystem and community.  But there’s been some research done to show that marten are important seed dispersers. So there are a lot of plants that rely on animals for seed dispersal.

And then, of course, the idea of diversity – species diversity, biological diversity – and knowing that overall biological diversity is extremely important to the system, to our larger community. It provides for a healthier system, and it provides for a healthier forest. 

Then, of course, that brings in the economic side. We know that Pennsylvania is very attractive. We know that outdoor recreation actually encompasses quite a large part of our GDP each year in Pennsylvania, and we bring in a lot of funding through outdoor rec. So this is one of those things where if we would bring marten back to Pennsylvania, it would be the southernmost extent of their range and on the East Coast. So that has a potential to attract folks as well. 

And then socially, part of the assessment was also to do a public opinion survey because we need to make sure that the public either supports this or opposes it or is indifferent. But we need to know where the public stands. And fortunately, we found that 92% of the general public in Pennsylvania supports this. 

Then culturally, we have a rich history of Indigenous peoples in Pennsylvania. And unfortunately, we don’t have any tribal lands currently within the state, but we still have a lot of Indigenous peoples that call Pennsylvania home. We know the marten was an important symbol, was an important part of their legends and their stories. So making sure that we’re being sensitive to the folks that were here prior to European settlement is also critical.

Winslow: Are there any possible negatives to bringing it back? You know, some things that the Game Commission has looked at as definitely things to consider. 

Keller: So that was a major part of this assessment. Again, we don’t take these decisions lightly, and there was a lot of concern with the potential negative impacts to other species or negative impacts from other species that are existing.

To kind of spell that out, some of the species that share similar habitat in Pennsylvania are species of concern as far as species are greatest conservation need because their populations are struggling. We think about snowshoe hares, Northern Goshawk, Allegheny woodrats, ruffed grouse, and then even other species of concern from other groups or sportsmen’s groups like the wild turkey

These are all things that were voiced from other biologists within our agency, other entities and groups outside of our agency, and of course, the public. We would expect, that if [martens] were going to impact these species, we would see that in the data.

What we found was that the large majority or largest percent frequency of occurrence within the diet were rodents. That’s important for those folks that are concerned to understand that there really is likely not going to be a negative impact on many of these species of concern because of what the majority of their diet consists of. 

Now, as far as negative impacts on marten, that was the other concern. We don’t want to reintroduce a species into Pennsylvania that doesn’t have a good chance to succeed because of predation or competition. 

So we look primarily at things like fisher, coyotes, as well as other weasels and bobcats, knowing from other research that these can be major competitors for the marten. What we found is that marten are actually able to partition – to separate themselves – based on a variety of factors, one being snowfall. So marten will spend a lot of their winter underneath the snow, which allows them to outcompete many of these species and protects them from potential mortality. So this kind of gives us a good sense of what the potential for impact is. And again, it’s very minimal negative impact on martens from other species. 

Winslow: So what are the next steps? What does the timeline look like starting here and moving forward? 

Keller: I just want to be clear. The board didn’t vote to move forward with reintroduction at this time, only to take the next step, and the next step is to develop basically it’ll be a 10-year reintroduction/management plan. So that’s going to be what I’m working on here for the next year. That to the board at the July meeting in 2023, and the board will then decide whether to move forward to three introductions or not at that time. 

Thomas Keller is a wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s furbearer program.