The marten chronicles

Framing the wrong guy isn't always a bad thing

  • Marten antics at a wildlife cam set up in hopes of documenting wolverines.

    Courtesy USFS
  • Courtesy USFS
  • Courtesy USFS
  • Courtesy USFS

The deer head hangs from a tree on a thin cable, picked clean save for a few visually arresting chunks of gore. Beneath it, a branch with a small log nailed to its end juts from the trunk, supported by a strut. The idea is that, tempted by the head -- because who wouldn't be? -- a wolverine will climb out on the branch, tense, and spring. In so doing, it will trigger the camera lashed to the fir opposite and make itself known, here in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest of Washington's North Cascades.

That is how the set-up is supposed to work, anyway. But there are occasional complications -- usually martens.

"Heads are good bait," says John Rohrer, a Forest Service biologist. His is a grisly logic. "Martens usually eat the skin pretty quick, but the skull's too thick for them, so a wolverine gets the brains."

Adam Kehoe, one of the field workers, checks the camera. "It took more than 200 pictures!" he says. Hushed, excited murmuring among the crew in attendance. They are all part of the North Cascades Wolverine Study, a multi-year, multi-agency, multi-national effort. All that is missing from this party is the wolverine.

Trapped for their fur, poisoned by bait meant for other predators, or simply shot on sight, wolverines hadn't been documented here since the 1920s. Then, in the late 1990s, Rohrer and Scott Fitkin, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, detected wolverines in the North Cascades with a remote camera like this one. Martens, on the other hand, never left. Both are members of the weasel family. If the wolverine is the elusive wayfaring celebrity of the clan, then the marten, as its name might suggest, is the accountant. Skinny of body, bushy of tail, it's about two feet long and weighs close to three pounds. Although still trapped for their fur, martens are not thought to be in any immediate danger. They're just martens -- not unwanted, certainly, but not exactly sought after, either.

Kehoe swaps out the memory card and we all head back to the Methow Valley Ranger District office, in Winthrop, Wash. Rohrer loads the photos. We press in around him. "Is it Rocky?" Keith Aubry asks. Aubry, also with the Forest Service, heads the wolverine study from the Pacific Northwest Research Station in Olympia. Rocky is one of his wards, a wolverine caught and tagged a few weeks ago in British Columbia. He has since crossed the border and is rambling about the Pasayten Wilderness. If his satellite-collar is to be believed, he is within a few miles of the camera. Aubry would love to get another look at him.

"Nope," Rohrer says. "Looks like it's just a marten." General letdown. People drift off as Rohrer flicks through the pictures. At two frames per second, the camera has captured the marten's routine. It's like watching a Buster Keaton movie: The marten paces to the end of the branch, peers up at the head. Then it leaps, is caught in mid-flight, and soon all we see is its hind legs and tail thrashing around as the head swings in and out of the camera's field of view. Another blur when the marten loses its grip and falls to the ground. A blank minute. Then the sequence starts again: the marten on the branch, the pause, the sizing up of the leap, the leap itself! More thrashing, hind legs seeking purchase, tail rotoring madly. Another fall. Then once more.

This goes on for several minutes.

"Look at that guy," Rohrer marvels.

I, too, wish I had seen a wolverine, but it is impossible to begrudge the marten its hard work. In the basement, amidst the clutter of feathers and skulls and topo maps, pictures of martens are everywhere -- martens peering out of the big wooden live traps meant for wolverines, martens perched in trees, martens caught in some act of malfeasance and beating a hasty retreat. Compared with the Wolverine Wall of Fame on the other side of the room, these look like wanted posters. I see an earlier printout of a marten on the branch under the deer head. It seems to consider the camera, its eyes bright white flares in the cold grayscale night: I am marten! See me skulk!

I ask Rohrer if he would mind making me a copy of the photo. "No problem," he says. "You can just take that one if you want." He sounds surprised, a little amused. "You want one of a wolverine, too? We have a whole bunch of those."

"That's OK," I say. "This one's great."

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