Considering the array of predators — everything from weasels to red foxes — that will raid a henhouse, Tom Keller isn’t surprised when poultry owners express concern about a plan to introduce another one to the Pennsylvania landscape.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is exploring the feasibility of reintroducing the American marten in several areas of the state. The species, which is part of the mustelid family that includes weasels, mink and otters, is native to Pennsylvania but was extirpated from the state in the early 1900s due to deforestation and unregulated harvest. Adult martens weigh between 1 and 3 pounds and measure between 19 and 27 inches, the same size as adult mink.
The Game Commission board approved the development of a marten reintroduction plan in July 2022. Keller, who is the agency’s furbearer biologist, is writing the plan, which has generated a lot of debate, and concern, over the impact of bringing back a predator.
In an effort to address questions directly, Keller launched a public relations campaign, traveling the state to speak with sportsmen’s groups, conservation organizations and host open houses in every region.
He knows the notion of bringing back this predator will trigger some alarm, and so far Keller has seemingly heard it all. Those who own chickens and other poultry have been vocal, he said, and they want to know if martens will prey on their birds.
“That’s one of the most common questions we get,” Keller said. “There’s so many people that have backyard flocks, so we get a lot of people asking about it.”
In short, Keller’s answer to poultry owners is they really don’t have anything to worry about when it comes to the marten, for several reasons.
The marten is a reclusive species that prefers the remoteness of large, unbroken tracts of forest. If they are eventually released back into the state, Keller said, it will likely be in the vast forests of the northcentral region, including the PA Wilds, the Allegheny National Forest and possibly the area west of Scranton in the northeast.
“It would be far away from agricultural areas and most places where you would find backyard chicken flocks or even commercial flocks,” he said.
And if there are a few flocks in the release areas, Keller said the predator management techniques that are commonly practiced now — fencing and locking birds in coops at night — would be adequate protection against martens.
“If you’re already protecting your flock from things like weasels and mink, then you’ll be protecting them against marten as well,” he said.
As Keller researched the feasibility of a marten reintroduction effort for Pennsylvania, he scrutinized diet studies conducted by states where the species is present. Keller wanted to know what martens eat, and as a grouse and turkey hunter himself, he wanted some assurance that the predator wouldn’t be a detriment to those populations.
As Keller spent nearly a year reviewing research from other states and Canadian provinces, studies indicated that raiding turkey nests, or anything similar, isn’t the marten’s forte.
“I can’t find any evidence that marten predate turkey eggs, poults or adults,” he said. “Members of the weasel family generally hunt for live animals, and in the case of marten, their diet is very diverse, including small mammals, insects and plant material.”
Still, more work remains before any reintroduction will take place. As of mid-February, Keller has already given 25 marten presentations across the state and he has another 30 scheduled. He is still developing the reintroduction and management plan, which will determine release sites, how many martens are needed and from which states they will come, and how to capture, transport and release the furbearer in Pennsylvania.
Keller hopes to present a draft plan to the Game Commission board in July. If it gets the green light, a lengthy public review and comment period will follow. Then Keller will head back to the board with a final plan for consideration, and he said that won’t happen until January 2024 at the earliest.
“If the final plan is approved, then we’ll move forward with actual reintroduction. This is a multi-year process just to get to the point of release,” Keller said.
In the meantime, he will continue giving presentations to every club and organization that will have him, and he’ll answer any question that is asked.
At this point, Keller has a good idea of what to expect.
“The major concern still revolves around an impact to wild turkeys and domestic fowl. That’s to be expected,” he said. “The presentations do help change some opinions, and education is very important. This is a species that we haven’t had here for 120 years.”