There are some notorious members in the weasel family, from the iconic wolverine to the extinct sea mink, the majority of these midrange carnivores known for a deceptive cuteness and ill-suited ferocity. When it comes to the weasels of Nova Scotia, some have been exterminated, others have held their ground, but only one, to my knowledge, has dared to do both.
The American pine marten once had full range of this fine province, occupying suitable habitat on the mainland as well as Cape Breton Island. Best we can tell this species favours forests of coniferous old growth, such as ancient pine and spruce, depending on the small prey these forests harbour and taking shelter under their thick canopies. Old growth of this sort was common back in the day and its disappearance at the hands of fire and forestry played a role in the marten’s downfall, but the true deathblow to this Nova Scotian weasel came from the fur trade.
With an unregulated ferocity of its own, historic trapping harvested our province’s forests to the utmost, and I’m told marten pelts were second in demand only to the almighty beaver. By the 1920s the trappers of Atlantic Canada recognized the growing scarcity of Pine martens and it’s thought by the 1930s, this species had been eradicated entirely from the Nova Scotian mainland.
I heard this story from Matthew Smith, an ecologist with Parks Canada who presently tends to Kejimkujik National Park. After the 1930s no rumblings from this particular weasel were reported on the mainland, with one tantalizing exception from 1979, when a single marten was spotted near Weymouth. Whether this individual was introduced to our province after the fact, or instead belonged to a small relic population eluding our gaze, can’t be said, but regardless, these animals didn’t present themselves again.
The loss of any species has tremendous consequences for its home ecosystem and the Pine marten was no exception. Matthew tells me that midrange predators such as this weasel play a critical role in controlling the hares, squirrels and other small rodents which make up their diet. They also provide food in turn higher up the food chain, to predatory raptors for example. The loss of the Pine marten was felt in our forests, whether we noticed or not.
And here’s where the story might have ended, with our forests emptied of an ecological asset, were it not for Parks Canada and its mandate to restore the missing pieces of our natural heritage.
The reintroduction of an absent animal is not something undertaken lightly and for good reason. First suitable habitat needs to be identified for the organism in question, the local prey base assessed and negative consequences considered. The bottom line is feasibility, and giving the introduced organism the best possible chance of survival. When this reintroduction study was undertaken on behalf of the Pine marten, three parks with suitable habitat were identified in Atlantic Canada – New Brunswick’s Fundy National Park, Newfoundland’s Terra Nova National Park and, of course, Nova Scotia’s Kejimkujik.
From 1987-1994, 116 martens from the Miramichi area of northern New Brunswick were placed in the holding pens of Kejimkujik National Park. Here, after their trapping and transportation, they were given time to acquaint themselves with this strange new world, then released at eleven sites across the park. The majority of these sites were on Keji’s southern and western borders, possessing of considerable space for them to spread, an opportunity they promptly seized.
Matthew tells me half of these pioneers established home ranges within the park itself – a very good sign – while others went as far as 50km outside park borders before putting down roots. With the benefit of snow tracking, bait stations and remote camera surveys in the years following the release, researchers watched this epic unfold, the most recent round of scientific inquiry taking place between 2005-2009.
“Those animals have since established throughout Southwest Nova and it looks like they’re doing well, in terms of expansion and distribution,” said Matthew, himself coming across tracks while walking.
This species is an elusive one, he said, so without additional study their population across Southwest Nova can’t be known, but the aforementioned signs and sightings speak to just how far they’ve come. Of particular interest to Matthew is a report from the Department of Natural Resources declaring martens have established themselves near Weymouth, where the 1979 individual made its mysterious appearance, but again, what this means can’t be said without further study. This same report shows some have even reached the province’s eastern shore.
So the homecoming of the Pine marten has been an promising one, but Matthew stresses that, in spite of progress, this is still very much an endangered species. The purpose of the reintroduction was to re-establish them across the whole of Nova Scotia by planting the initial seed in Kejimkujik. With this as an endpoint, there’s still a long way to go.
Matthew’s personal experience with the Pine marten has been limited by the animal’s shyness, but while working in Fundy National Park he was fortunate to encounter several, most of them caught in live traps meant for flying squirrels.
“You come up to the traps and they look cute, like a fox cub or something, but then you get close and, well, they’re a weasel,” said Matthew, recounting the low growl which often greeted his approach. As well he’s seen them wild, sometimes quick to vanish and others time more inquisitive, watching passers by from the safety of a high branch.
It’s Matthew’s hope that, in the absence of formal studies to gauge the health of these martens, citizen science might step in to fill the gap, at least in Kejimkujik. In particular Matthew recommends people use iNaturalist, a mobile app which allows anyone to quickly document their findings and make them available to experts the world over. A Pine marten, he said, would be a significant find for any ambitious amateur.
In my considered opinion there are few pursuits more worthy of our time than rewilding, those endeavours which seek to undo our damage over the centuries and breathe life back into our fair Canada. Such pursuits face unparalleled challenges which will be overcome in time, but for now we have the Pine marten, once eradicated and now, for all intent
s and purposes, restored. This achievement, while relatively modest, gives me hope for everything else we’ve lost.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with the Chronicle Herald.