White-tailed deer, bald eagles, wild turkeys, elk and beaver. These are all animals that have been successfully reintroduced in Pennsylvania. The American marten could be the next to join that list.
Most Pennsylvanians approved of the plan to reintroduce the marten to the state’s woodlands, according to a public opinion poll conducted by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
“We found 92% of Pennsylvanian’s support this project,” said Thomas Keller, furbearer biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “And 92% of hunters support this as well.”
There are, however, people in the minority, including some farmers who are concerned about introducing a predator could exacerbate an already difficult situation with keeping poultry safe.
“I don’t think it’s in agriculture’s best interest to bring another member of the weasel family to the diminished habitat,” said Mike Little, a farmer in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and board member with the Westmoreland County Farm Bureau. “This isn’t the big woods of Pennsylvania anymore.”
All about marten
The American marten, also known as the pine marten, is one of the last on a list of animals native to Pennsylvania that could be successfully reintroduced, Keller said. It’s been more than 120 years since the marten population here was lost due to deforestation and unregulated harvest.
“Around the early 1900s, we had decimated all of our forests and most of our forest species went with it,” Keller said. “We’ve been slowly working together to get many of these species back. The marten is probably one of the last ones on the list that we have a realistic opportunity to do that with.”
Martens are a member of the weasel family. They’re slightly larger than true weasels, at about 20-26 inches long from nose to tail tip. Adults weigh between 1 and 3 pounds. Martens vary from light brown to black in color, with a yellow bib covering the throat and stretching down the chest.
Bringing the marten back is about more than just returning an animal that was once here. It would improve biodiversity. Martens primarily eat small mammals, birds and insects, but about 21% of their diet comes from berries and other plants, according to the PGC’s feasibility study. Keller said the martens are important for seed dispersal in forests. Martens have a home range of up to 3.5 square miles.
There’s the potential for economic impact as well. Having the marten could bring in not just trappers and hunters to the state, but also wildlife viewers and photographers, Keller said.
Reintroducing the marten is part of the PGC’s 2020-23 strategic plan. The commission presented a feasibility assessment for reintroducing the American marten to the board last summer. The board gave the go-ahead for staff to take the next step and prepare a relocation and management plan for the project. Keller said they’ll be presenting that plan to the board in July. If approved, then they’ll move the plan out for public review and comment.
The earliest martens would be reintroduced to the forests of Pennsylvania would be early 2024, Keller said.
Little raises pastured poultry, in addition to grassfed beef and pastured pigs. He finishes about 1,000 meat birds each year for his customers.
“I already have a problem with weasels, mink, fishers, on top of coyotes, foxes and eagles,” he said.
Little attended an information meeting at a local sportsman’s club in January where the game commission was speaking about the marten reintroduction proposal. After Little introduced the idea, the Westmoreland County Farm Bureau board voted unanimously in January to oppose the marten reintroduction plan.
He said there are areas of the state where it may make sense to add the marten back, but overall he sees the argument for reintroduction as flimsy.
Keller said the concern about poultry predation is valid. It could happen, but it’s not likely for a couple of reasons, he said. Martens don’t tend to exist in the same areas that farms or people do. If martens were to be reintroduced to Pennsylvania, it would be in the northwestern to north-central part of the state often called the Pennsylvania Wilds. The region is dominated by forested public land.
“When we think about martens, we think about a deep forest species. They are very specific to a healthy forest,” he said. “If we were going to move forward with marten reintroduction, it would be about as far away from human populations as we can get.”
Keller also said that livestock should be protected as long as farmers are defending their stock against other predators.
“As long as producers and backyard chicken owners are protecting their flocks from weasels and mink, they’re going to be protected from marten.”
The issue remains that raising poultry on pasture is inherently risky. Structures for the pastured poultry operations are purposefully built to be light-weight and mobile, Little said, meaning there won’t be a buried fence line or other physical barriers to stop small predators.
While Little does what he can to protect his animals, he doesn’t see the need for the state to add another predatory weasel to the mix, even if the likelihood of it attacking his animals is small.
“We’re spending our tax dollars on somebody’s pet project,” he said.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or email@example.com.)
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