(Photo: a pine marten clings to a fence in Nova Scotia)

Gretel is a pine marten living out her days at the Hope for Wildlife rehabilitation centre in Seaforth, Nova Scotia, where she mingles with visitors and moves freely through many of the buildings. She’s one of the few pine martens left in Nova Scotia, but with reintroduction efforts and habitat protection underway, this number is gradually increasing.
Photo by Zack Metcalfe

The pine marten is an adorable creature, with fur softer than any pillow and a personality not unlike that of an inquisitive cat. I know this because I had the pleasure of meeting one a few weeks back, which is a very rare opportunity in Nova Scotia. Her name was Gretel.

Martens are a species of weasel, long and slender with small heads, large ears and tails half as long as their bodies. Their fur is red and dark brown, and their little eyes will make your heart melt. That being said, don’t try petting any you come across. They’re still carnivores and can be ferocious when they need to.

We were hard on these energetic forest dwellers in the early days of unrestrained trapping – so hard, in fact, that martens were eradicated from the Nova Scotian mainland altogether by 1935. It was thought that the Cape Breton population met the same fate around that time, but more on them later. Thankfully the pine marten was not unique to Nova Scotia.

They abounded from coast to coast, inhabiting suitable forests from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. Wherever they were eradicated, we’ve had the good sense to reintroduce them. Newfoundland has undertaken this strategy, breeding martens in captivity and introducing them into depleted regions such as around Terra Nova National Park. The island’s population, once estimated at approximately 300 individuals, has grown and appears stable.

New Brunswick’s martens have been doing so well they’ve been able to donate a few to Nova Scotia’s reintroduction effort, giving 116 of their best and brightest to Kejimikujik National Park between 1987 and 1994. These furry pioneers have successfully taken root and, it’s believed, are expanding westward, reviving this species’ presence on the mainland.

A very small number of martens, hiding in the Cape Breton highlands, managed to avoid the cruel hands of humanity for entire decades, finally being discovered in the 1960s.

But on Cape Breton the story is a little different. A very small number of martens, hiding in the Cape Breton highlands, managed to avoid the cruel hands of humanity for entire decades, finally being discovered in the 1960s and listed as endangered under provincial law in the early 2000s. There were very few of them, likely no more than 50 on the entire Island, and the population wasn’t recovering. Now we call them a “relic” population, clinging stubbornly to existence in spite of our past mistakes.

Martens thrive in mixed wood forests, but logging activities and a budworm infestation in the 1970s devastated much of their living space, habitat which has yet to fully recover. This loss, combined with a very small gene pool, are likely reasons for their continued decline. Thankfully, recovery efforts have addressed exactly these problems.

Forests have been protected on behalf of the marten and New Brunswick specimens have already been introduced, hopefully diversifying the gene pool enough for this to become a viable population. It’s a shame this unique group of martens, this relic from Cape Breton’s past, must be nursed back to health with the help of outsiders. It’s estimated the Cape Breton population was separated from mainland martens some 10,000 years ago, enough time for them to become as unique as the region itself.

These recovery efforts are exactly what the pine marten needs to reestablish its claim over our forest. All I can say is good luck...and in some cases, welcome home.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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