Feb. 8—The American marten may be returning to Pennsylvania forests after more than a 100-year absence.
Known also as the pine marten, the tree-climbing agile predators once native to the state are being considered for reintroduction by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Widespread deforestation and over-hunting wiped out martens around 1900, but Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists feel that it's time to bring them back.
"We know that in the overall ecological community, the marten is one of these missing pieces," Pennsylvania Game Commission furbearer biologist Tom Keller said. "When we think about the ecological community as being a well-oiled machine, every time you remove a part or piece from that machine, that machine runs much less efficiently."
Roughly the size of minks, martens provide vital seed dispersal over their wide range, as well as rodent population management.
"This is definitely the right time to move forward with something like this, because this is one of the last species that we can realistically reintroduce and bring back to Pennsylvania," Keller said. "I think that just continues to show its importance not just to us and our generation, but to future generations down the road."
White-tailed deer, elk, wild turkeys, bald eagles, river otters, fishers and beavers are all examples of successful wildlife reintroductions in the state.
"Pennsylvania has really led the way in restoring species when you look at all the different species that were lost by the early 1900s, and then everything that we've been able to bring back within the last 100 years," Keller said.
Reintroducing a species takes time. Studies, public polling and proposing a solid management plan will hold up reintroduction until receiving possible approval by the board of commissioners in April 2024.
"We're definitely close to a year out on even trying to get approval for it," Keller said. "So far, public opinion surveys showed 92% of polled Pennsylvania residents support marten reintroduction. Ninety-two percent of hunters also supported it."
If the plan is approved, martens would be taken from four northern states and three Canadian provinces and released in north-central Pennsylvania where good habitats exist — that is, a diverse mixture of tree species and structure such as root balls, downed trees, rocks and standing live and dead trees. Areas with good annual snowfall are vital as martens spend a long portion of winter underneath the snow, where they scour for rodents, stay warm and hide from other predators.
Over forty successful marten reintroductions in the United States and Canada would be used to guide Pennsylvania biologists, said Keller. Ideas about marten capture, transport, release and monitoring can be learned from previous efforts.
Hunters need not worry about martens impacting their local wild turkey population, said Keller.
"We found no evidence within literature, talking with experts, that wild turkeys are predated upon by the American marten," Keller said. "That's not just adults, that's actually points and eggs.
"Negative impacts from marten to other species is very minimal. Data from 13 different diet studies found marten mostly feed on voles, shrews, chipmunks and mice, as well as insects, plants, small birds, rabbits and squirrels."
Like fishers, martens eat their own kind.
Besides ecological reasons, Keller said the reintroduction idea is also based on political, cultural, social and economic factors, in that humans should try to save declining species, consider their importance to indigenous people and factor in outdoor recreational opportunities.