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Searching The Olympic Forest For The Elusive Marten

Jan. 18, 2013 | KUOW
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Ashley Ahearn

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  • The American Marten, a charismatic member of the weasel family, is doing well in most of its North American range, but there have only been three marten sightings in Olympic National Forest in the past 25 years. credit: T. Gettelman, Lassen National Forest, CA
  • Volunteers with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation set up motion-activated cameras in remote parts of Olympic National Forest in search of the American Marten. credit: Michael Murray
  • Gregg Treinish was the first person to hike the length of the Andes without relying on roads. Two years ago he founded Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. credit: Ashley Ahearn
  • Betsy Howell, the biologist with Olympic National Forest who organized the marten monitoring project with ASC, holds a piece of beaver carcass that will be used as bait at a monitoring site. credit: Ashley Ahearn
  • Jenna Walenga and Greg Wahl, two volunteers with ASC, look at the 11 mile route before the hike begins. credit: Michael Murray
The American Marten, a charismatic member of the weasel family, is doing well in most of its North American range, but there have only been three marten sightings in Olympic National Forest in the past 25 years. | credit: T. Gettelman, Lassen National Forest, CA | rollover image for more

HOODSPORT, Wash. — It’s about 25 degrees on a clear Saturday morning when Greg Treinish gathers a small group of outdoor adventurers around him near the Duckabush River in the Olympic National Forest. Treinish is the executive director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a non-profit that puts volunteers to work gathering data for scientists around the world.

The mission for this group: Help biologists figure out if there are any martens left in the Olympic National Forest. They’ll be setting up motion-activated cameras in some of the forest’s snowiest, most remote territory.

The citizen scientists fill their packs with a strange assortment of gear, including chicken wire, hammers, folding saws and — wait for it — human-head-sized chunks of beaver carcass.

“I don’t mind carrying dead things but maybe I’ll move my lunch,” says Sonia Wolfman, a lawyer from Olympia, as she stuffs a black garbage bag full of beaver guts into her pack.

The beaver was provided by the Forest Service and will be used as bait to lure the martens in front of the remote cameras the volunteers plan to set up throughout the forest.

But in the Olympics anyway, catching a marten on camera is a very rare occurrence.

“For the past 25 years we’ve had three verifiable sightings,” says Betsy Howell, a biologist with the Forest Service who helped organize this project. “Two were photographs and one was an animal caught in a trap.”

WATCH: Audio slideshow

Martens are doing OK in other parts of the mountain West, but in the coastal ranges of Oregon and Washington their numbers appear to have plummeted in recent decades.

Until scientists know that for sure, these animals can’t be recommended for protection under the Endangered Species Act. That’s where these volunteers come in.

Treinish leads the group into the woods at a brisk pace. He’s a tightly-muscled guy with mountain man hair and an easy smile. When he hikes his eyes remain glued to the forest floor, scanning the snow. He picks out the tracks of mountain lion, elk, coyote, bobcat and a host of rodents along the trail, and points them out to the group. But no sign of martens.

After more than four miles of hiking up steep switchbacks and past sparkling icy rockfaces, we get to a spot that looks like a place martens might hang out… which, to the untrained eye, looks like every other snowy section of forest we’ve hiked through so far. But not to Greg Treinish.

“It’s a nice flat area here,” he explains, pointing at a dip in the landscape where a young cedar and fir tree stand about 13 feet apart. “I kinda like how it funnels everything into there so we’ll go with that spot.”

The group unloads their gear and starts setting up the station.


View Duckabush Trailhead in a larger map

Jenna Walenga, a barista from Seattle, snaps into a pair of rubber gloves and prepares to reach into the bloody garbage bag. A few years ago she hiked Kilimanjaro. Today her job is to attach a hunk of dead beaver to one of these trees.

“I’m actually a vegetarian,” she says as she holds the carcass against the tree so another volunteer can nail it down beneath a layer of chicken wire.

On the opposite tree the team sets up the motion-activated camera and aims it at the beaver carcass.

The chances of getting footage of martens in the Olympic National Forest are very slim. Much of the old-growth forests the marten rely on in the coastal range have been cut down and biologists worry that climate change will shrink the remaining cold alpine habitat.

No one knows how many martens might still live in the Olympic National Forest, but Howell says they’d probably never be able to find out without the help of volunteers like these.

“We can do so much more together than we can do separately. The partnership is a great way to get work done that otherwise we just don’t have funding or staff for anymore.”

The volunteers will set up 11 other stations like this one throughout the forest. Then they’ll come back in smaller groups to check the cameras every month or so to see if any martens showed up to have their pictures taken.

It’s still legal to trap martens in Washington and Oregon. But here in Olympic National Forest there may not be any left to catch - on camera, or otherwise.

Final note: Gregg Treinish cracked a tree joke as the team was setting up a camera at one of the sites and we couldn’t help ourselves, we had to share.

© 2013 KUOW
marten U.S. Forest Service citizen science Olympic National Forest Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation
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