Is Pennsylvania ready for the return of the American marten?

Anthony Maenza
York Dispatch

Reintroducing an animal species back into the wild is more complex than grabbing a few from another state and releasing them here.

It takes a plan. 

Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Thomas Keller is the person tasked with doing just that for the American marten, a cousin of the weasel that largely disappeared from Pennsylvania in the 20th century.

“We have a good idea of where we have suitable habitat within the state,” Keller said. “Our next step would be to work with some of our large public landowners within the state to try and identify some more specific areas where we would release these.” 

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On July 9, the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners approved moving forward with developing a plan for reintroduction and management of the marten. 

The American marten is an omnivore that has a pretty wide variety of items in its diet. The marten is long and slim with a bushy tail and is related to the weasel and is about the size of a mink. It measures anywhere from 13 to 18 inches in length and weighs between 1 to 3.5 pounds.  

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is developing a plan to reintroduce the American marten to the state.  PGC Photo / Tracy A. Graziano

“They have a thick, fur coat, which would put them into the furbearer category and at one time were pursued for their fur,” Keller said. 

It’s been over 100 years since the American marten has been a part of the Pennsylvania landscape. Between the late-1700s to the early 1900s, the American marten were most prevalent in the north central region of the state, Keller said.  

A couple of things led to the marten disappearing from the state — loss of habitat and unregulated hunting. Keller said that began in the 18th and 19th centuries, as large swaths of the state's forests were destroyed for agriculture and other industrial development.

“Fortunately for Pennsylvania, a lot of that has grown back,” Keller said. “We did a habitat model, a suitability model, to look to see if we had good habitat. Fortunately, we do in some of the northern tier counties of the state.” 

Species like raccoons can live in a variety of habitats, but species like the marten can only live in specific areas and are dependent on that habitat to survive. 

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There were no restrictions on hunting the marten in the early history of the state either, Keller said, adding that helped hasten their disappearance. 

Part of making a plan is where would they be released in the state.

Counties like Elk, Cameron, Clinton, Potter and McKean — areas where there many large state forests — are the parts of Pennsylvania that are best suited for marten reintroduction. 

“As far as their habitat goes, the type of habitat they are looking for is what we would call structurally complex,” Keller said. “That just means that there’s a lot of structure from the forest floor up to the canopy and that’s everything from downed logs or downed woody debris, standing dead timber to live timber.” 

Once those release areas are set, then the state will look at sources from which they would bring marten populations to the state. Keller said that would entail working with other states that have American marten populations already in place as well as Canadian provinces.

Agreements would have to be hammered out with those states and provinces and methods of capture, transport and release would have to be planned before any American martens set foot on Pennsylvania soil again. 

“But it’s been done many times before,” he said. “That’s the benefit for marten in particular. This is one of the most commonly reintroduced species of fur-bearers within North America.” 

Data and information already gathered by other states will be helpful to Pennsylvania when it comes to reintroducing the marten to the state. Most recently, Montana reintroduced the marten to the wild, Keller said. 

Pennsylvania also has had recent experience with reintroducing other species back into the state. The ring-necked pheasant was reintroduced in areas of the state beginning in 2008. The state is looking to start reintroducing bobwhite quail to the state in 2023. 

The cost of reintroducing the marten to Pennsylvania hasn’t been figured out at this time, Keller said. A lot of that would depend upon where marten populations are being transported from, how many will be moved and how efficiently that can be done. 

Between 50 to 60 marten would be needed to maintain a self-sustaining population. 

“I would be looking at more than that for reintroduction in Pennsylvania because we have the habitat,” he said. “I would be interested in looking at setting up multiple populations within the best habitat across that northern tier.” 

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Keller will present the American marten reintroduction plan to the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners at their meeting in July of 2023. 

“If the commissioners would decide to move forward to reintroduction, I would expect even with a reintroduction plan in place next summer, it would be a year or two past that (before the marten is reintroduced in Pennsylvania),” Keller said. 

— Reach Anthony Maenza at amaenza@yorkdispatch.com or @atmaenza on Twitter.