[Reprinted from original]
TRAVERSE CITY — Sleek, slender bodies move quickly through thick forests of conifer trees, with long tails on one end and relatively small heads at the other.
They are covered in soft, thick fur, ranging in browns, tans, and or yellows.
This is the wabizhashi, or American pine marten, a small predatory species with cultural and ecological significance to the Great Lakes Anishinaabek.
As a clan animal that holds teachings, the marten is respected by Anishinaabek sovereign nations like The Little River Band of Odawa Indians. In efforts to help struggling populations in the Lower Peninsula, the tribe is trying to answer questions on how to revitalize the species.
In the last decade the tribe’s Natural Resources Department researched the marten population, diets, behaviors and habitat use and determined martens “are a species of concern for the community.”
Marten had been among the Anishinaabek for centuries until the arrival of settlers when land consumption through development, extraction during the logging era and fires degraded forest habitat for marten in the 19th and 20th century.
This huge ecological shift caused a huge decline in native populations, and any remaining marten became in high demand for their pelts, resulting in them being extirpated in Michigan by the early 20th century.
According to a 2006 report from the U.S Department of Agriculture, harvest and trapping records showed that the last confirmed sighting of a marten was 1936 in Marquette County in the Upper Peninsula.
From the 1960s to the early ‘90s, there were several fisher marten releases in different counties in Upper Peninsula. By the 1980s, reports from MDNR stated the released populations successfully inhabited most western parts of the U.P.
It wasn’t until 1985-86 the Michigan DNR and U.S Fish and Wildlife Services released American (pine) marten into the Lower Peninsula’s Manistee National Forest and Pigeon River Country State Forest.
All released martens into the Lower Peninsula came from Crown Chapleau Game Preserve in Ontario, Canada, according to the 2006 report, and were last released in 1986. The Michigan DNR or FWS have not introduced any additional populations since.
The same report stated that the MDNR sought to continue reintroduction with additional marten, but no further releases were made because of Ontario government revising trapping regulations for future release efforts.
“Reintroduction efforts were supposed to continue for a number of years with 200 total released martens, but that didn’t happen,” said Bob Sanders, manager for the LRBOI’s NRD Wildlife Division.
Only 85 martens (40 females and 45 males) were reintroduced in Manistee National Forest and the Pigeon River Country State Forest — a very low founding population number, added Sanders.
“We felt this was a species that wasn’t getting much attention and the introduction efforts just decapitated, there weren’t a lot of questions answered.”
Sanders stated that since 2011, the tribe has conduced research with multiple agencies to understand why they are not seeing population increases of marten in the areas that the tribe collects data.
“There’s concern because of the low population and not much genetic diversity in population samples,” Sanders said.
Several collaborative research projects with Grand Valley State University are investigating this in the northern region of the Lower Peninsula.
Unlike parts of the Upper Peninsula that found success in marten populations after introduction, the Lower Peninsula has a lot of fragmented forests with farms and urban development in between.
How habitats are used by martens heavily depends on the ecosystem, explained Angela Kujawa, wildlife biologist for the LRBOI NRD.
For more than three years, under a grant from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the tribe set up cameras at more than 500 locations in the northern lower peninsula on ceded 1835 territory.
The goal was to collect data on where the martens were inhabiting and rearing kits and to look at the types of trees being used at resting sites.
The LRBOI’s Natural Resource Department also collected hair and blood samples to look at the genetic diversity and for any present diseases.
Some marten were GPS collared and monitored to “look at pre- and post- management prescriptions, like the harvest of lumber and its effects on the marten’s movement,” explained Sanders.
The tribe’s research also collected marten home range and habitat. Though marten are normally territorial with established home ranges, the data shows there are overlaps among siblings.
“There’s a lot of habitat also in some instances that is not being used by the marten,” Kujawa said. She went on to explain that in more than 30 locations of home ranges indicated by the radio collars, the tribe saw where the martens were spending time.
Bigger habitats can indicate lower quality of home ranges, so data on the impacts of timber movement are being conducted in partnership with GVSU, she said.
In 2018 the tribe surveyed areas of trees blown down from storms and the effects on the movement of marten. Data was collected by live-trapping in areas where marten occupied prior to “timber management” or natural disturbances.
Recently the tribe partnered with GVSU and the University of Duluth to look at resting sites and similarities and differences of diets through scat samples. This is to compare the same species of marten in Minnesota and Michigan, she said.
The eventual goal is to possibly supplement the population with more introduced martens, but Sanders explained that the tribe, in collaboration with other organizations, have a few more years of research to fully better understand the reintroduced populations and enact proper management strategies for the wabizhashi.
Some of the research will wrap up within the next few years, Sanders added, and LRBOI will continue to push for proper management and success of wabizhashi in traditional territories where the species once thrived among the Anishinabek.