The sun filters through the balsam and red pine canopy, highlighting a series of prints in the snow.
It's the kind of day that favors a tracker. An inch of snow fell overnight, creating a fresh canvas to record the activities of the wild ones.
And they had been active. In a half-hour of travel down a seldom-used road in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest east of Clam Lake, the signs of gray wolf, coyote, fisher and white-tailed deer had been noted.
But the one Jim Woodford is especially interested in had yet to be seen. That's not unusual - it's the only mammal on the Wisconsin endangered species list.Woodford, a conservation biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, bends over a fresh set of tracks along a snow-covered log and inspects the size, shape and bounding pattern.
"Looks like we've got our first one," Woodford says. "Good to see."The animal - an American marten - traversed the log then tunneled into the snow.Five yards later, it emerged and bounded off in the zigzag manner of a hungry predator open to opportunity.Woodford pulls off his backpack and scrutinizes the trunk of a sloping red pine.
He nods affirmatively and begins to pull items from his pack - a length of PVC pipe, a pair of wire brushes, a piece of raw beaver meat, a bottle of skunk lure, and the pièce de résistance, a bottle of strawberry jam."Martens have a sweet tooth," Woodford says.It's all part of a project to monitor the population size, genetic diversity and distribution of martens in Wisconsin.
If it works correctly, a marten will smell the skunk lure or the beaver meat or the jam and crawl into the PVC pipe, squeeze past the wire brushes, take the meat and jam and leave a few hairs on the brushes.The hair will then be subjected to DNA analysis by Jonathon Paulie at the University of Wisconsin.Partners in the project include the DNR, Great Lakes Indian and Fish and Wildlife Council, U.S. Forest Service and University of Wisconsin.
"Hair traps" are being set in several areas of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest this winter. The DNR, GLIFWC and forest service are conducting the work in designated areas.For the Ojibwe, the marten, known as waabizheshi, holds special significance."It's a clan animal," said Jonathan Gilbert, GLIFWC biologist. "The tribes are very interested in making sure it recovers in Wisconsin."
The marten is a member of the Mustelid family, carnivorous weasels that range in size from the tiny least weasel, to ermine, mink, skunks and otters on up to fishers and wolverines.
The marten weighs 1½ to 2½ pounds and males grow up to 25 inches in length. Martens have plush, lustrous fur and long bushy tails one-third of their total length. They are mostly nocturnal and prey heavily on mice and other small rodents in the forest. They also will eat fruits, birds and red squirrels.
Also called the pine marten, the species was found nearly statewide throughout the forested regions of Wisconsin before European settlement, but their numbers and distribution decreased due to unregulated trapping and habitat loss.They prefer dense forest with lots of downed trees and overhead cover.
The leading cause of natural mortality is predation from other mammals, including fishers, bobcats, red fox and coyotes, as well as from hawks and owls.
Although marten trapping was prohibited in 1921, the species was considered extirpated from the state by 1925.The marten was listed as a state endangered species and a recovery plan was developed in 1986. Three major reintroduction projects have occurred since under the plan to re-establish martens to the forests of northern Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board approved an updated marten management plan at its January meeting. The management plan calls for, among other things, developing a more accurate population estimate of martens in Wisconsin; maintaining the two marten protection areas; developing and implementing forest management guidelines to protect and improve marten habitat; and protecting and enhancing corridors for marten movements between isolated groups of martens.
The state has two marten populations: a northwestern population called the Chequamegon in Ashland and Sawyer counties and a northeastern population called the Nicolet mostly in Forest County.
The Nicolet population has fared much better, Woodford says, and is considered the core area. The marten population there was estimated between 160 and 282 in 2005.
To bolster the northwestern population, 93 martens have been caught in Minnesota and released in the Chequamegon in recent years.The most recent release featured 13 males and 19 females in 2010.
The tracks of one of those animals could be on the log next to Woodford as he secures the PVC trap with a wire.
If it is, the DNA testing will tell the tale. The project has two goals: to estimate the marten population and gauge its recruitment.Wildlife managers hope the introduction of the Minnesota animals will improve the genetic diversity of the Chequamegon population.Woodford has one last touch - a smudge of skunk scent is applied to a cotton ball and hung in a nearby tree."It seems all predators can't resist the smell of a skunk," Woodford says. "They come in to check it out."Hopefully that will include at least one marten that will leave behind a modest hair sample and help researchers plot a course for permanent marten recovery in Wisconsin.