North Country
5:00 am
Tue January 22, 2013

On A Frigid Peak Biologists Research The Marten's Comeback

Audio of broadcast story.

Almost 35 years ago the American Marten was one of the first animals to be put on the state’s threatened species list, but now the slinky member of the weasel family is making a comeback.

The question is how big a comeback and on a January morning with the temperature someplace around twenty below, Alexej Siren is getting ready to work on that.

Siren is a University of New Hampshire graduate student working on his masters in conservation and wildlife biology.

For roughly two years he’s been heading up to Mount Kelsey and the areas nearby, trying to come up with a good way to measure the elusive Marten population. If a reliable method can be worked out it could be used statewide.

Siren is loading snowshoes and electronic gear onto two snowmobiles, working with Will Staats, a wildlife biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game.

Their destination is Mount Kelsey and the adjacent ridgelines, now off limits to the public because 33 wind turbines are located there.

Before the wind turbines were located there those high-altitude ridgelines were a favorite habitat of the Marten, which range in size from 18 to 30 inches.

They were once common in New Hampshire. But trapping and habitat-destroying logging drastically reduced their population, says Jillian Kilborn, a Fish and Game wildlife biologist.

The state got involved in 1979 as the American (or Pine) Marten was one of the first species to be put on the state’s list of threatened or endangered species.

But Kilborn says it took a long time to see an improvement.

“Probably about 5 or 10 ten years ago is when those sightings really began to go through the roof,” she says.

That’s good news for more than Martens, says Kilborn, because other species thrive in the same kind of habitat.

Previously Martens were most often found in the Northern part of  Coos County but now they are being seen farther south, including Bethlehem and Sugar Hill.

Approaching Mount Kelsey, the public snowmobile trail ends. A gate warns that the mountain top is private property and dangerous because of the gigantic wind turbines.

Among other things, the blades can accumulate – and hurl – large chunks of ice.

But because of their research Siren and Staats have special permission and we continue.

At the top of Mount Kelsey we dismount. It is not surprising that it is so cold the snow squeaks when stepped on.

Look at almost any adjacent ridgeline and you can see wind turbines that make trees look like shrubs.

Far above us, the gigantic wind turbine’s blades make a thrum sound heard despite the wind.

We crunch through the snow into the frosty-white trees which are covered with rime. In most places the snow is up to our knees but it is possible to sink waist deep.

Siren retrieves a big, heavy battery from a radio monitoring station that is a key part of his effort to monitor the Martens. But before that monitoring would work he had to capture some which he did by appealing to their taste for something not normally found on New Hampshire’s peaks: sardines.

The sardines were placed in live-capture traps, which are carefully insulated with boughs and checked twice a day. Once in custody the Martens were sedated, measured, weighed and fitted with small radio collars. The idea is to see how far they travel.

With the battery in hand we trudge back to the snowmobiles and take a short trip to another spot nearby.

We stop and Siren unfolds what looks like an old TV antenna which he slowly waves like he’s trying to harvest something. In fact, he’s hoping to snare a signal from a marten’s radio collar.

He gets a crackling, static.

“I’m not hearing anybody from here. So. Nothing from here,” he says.

We try a few other spots.

Nothing.

Along the way Siren and Staats are looking for other animals - fox and coyote, for example.

One concern about the wind turbines was that the wide roads needed for construction – where none had been before – would make it easier for predators like coyotes and fox to get up high.

That means they could compete with the Marten’s food. Or, use the Marten as food, says Siren.

“Canines have a predilection for roads and wider paths in general. It is just their hunting style and their biology,” he says.

Indeed, Siren says there is evidence of a significant increase in the coyote and fox population in the higher areas.

As we head down we’ve seen neither Marten, nor fox, nor coyote. Maybe they’re just trying to stay out of the cold.

Courtesy of Frank Ritcey