Volunteers Search For The Elusive Marten In Olympic National Forest

Jan 18, 2013

The American Marten is a small elusive member of the weasel family. People trap them and sell their pelts on the fur market where they’re known as “sable”. Their numbers are healthy in Canada and some northern parts of the U.S. But scientists worry that marten populations have severely declined in coastal mountain ranges - like the Olympic National Forest.

Ashley Ahearn from our EarthFix team reports on one organization that’s trying to help scientists get some answers.

Though the American Marten is not threatened in the majority of its range, biologists worry that the population in coastal mountain ranges, like Olympic National Forest, have declined in the last few decades.
Credit Photo by T. Gettelman / Lassen National Forest

When most people go hiking they probably don’t bring...

Treinish: "Clippers?" Wahl: "Clippers. Yes." Treinish: "Alright, do we have a folding saw?" Wahl: "Yes."

It’s about 25 degrees on a clear Saturday morning when Gregg Treinish gathers a small group of volunteers around him.

Treinish: "Do we have a hammer?" Wahl: "Yes, check."

Treinish is the executive director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. It’s a non-profit that puts avid outdoorspeople to work gathering data for scientists around the world.

Treinish: "Do we have a roll of chicken wire?" Wahl: "Yes."

The mission for this group: Help biologists in the Olympic National Forest figure out if there are any martens left in this coastal mountain range and see if there’s a threat of extinction.

Betsy Howell stands nearby. She’s a biologist with the Forest Service who brought Treinish’s group here to help with the research.

Howell: "We can do so much more together than we can do separately. The partnership is a great way to get work done that otherwise we just don’t have funding or staff for anymore."

The group will be setting up motion-sensing cameras in some of the most inaccessible parts of the forest at this time of year - in the hopes of getting a shot of a marten.

Howell: "They’re extremely cute little animals, if I may be so unscientific."

Martens are smaller than your typical house cat with a long weaselly body, short legs and a bushy tail. They’re usually a tawny brown with an orange throat patch.

Martens make their home in old growth forest. Howell explains that in the coastal region, much of that habitat has disappeared.

The chances of catching one on camera here are incredibly slim. Howell’s been trying for years but hasn’t seen one herself.

Howell: "For the past 25 years we’ve had 3 sightings. Two were photographs and one was an animal caught in a trap."

Martens may be rare here, but until scientists know that for sure, these animals can’t be recommended for protection under the Endangered Species Act. That’s where these volunteers come in.

Everyone finishes packing up and Gregg Treinish leads the group into the woods at a brisk pace.

He and Betsy Howell point out the tracks of mountain lion, elk, coyote, bobcat and a host of rodents along the snowy trail. No martens.

Treinish: "Notice this track off to your left here, see if you can figure out what’s using this little run here."

The volunteers hike for several hours before they get to what looks like a good place to put a marten camera. To the untrained eye, it looks like every other snowy section of alpine forest. But not to Gregg Treinish.

Treinish: "To the right of Betsy is a cedar tree and to the left of Betsy is a fir tree. I kind like how it funnels everything into there so we’ll go with that spot. Sound good?"

The group unloads its gear and starts setting up the station.

Jenna Walenga is a barista from Seattle. A few years ago she hiked Kilimanjaro.

Right now her job is to pull a bloody piece of beaver carcass about the size of a soccer ball out of it’s plastic garbage bag and attach it to one of the trees.

Walenga: "Aaaaah. This is just a nice piece of meat."

Treinish: "Really what we’re doing is luring them into this area so they’ll try to get our bait, which is what we’re hoping for so that we can get a photograph of them."

On the opposite tree the team sets up the motion-sensing camera and aims it at the beaver carcass.

The volunteers will set up 11 other stations like this one throughout the forest. Then they’ll come back in smaller groups to check the cameras every month or so to see if any martens show up to have their picture taken.

And if they do, there might be a chance that they could be better protected in the future.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio