The pine marten aka the sheriff of squirrel country

Doug got a lost pine marten when going to war with squirrels
“I can’t believe I just got myself trapped inside a damn squirrel cage.”
– Doug Sack’s perception of the pine marten’s thoughts 

As a wounded veteran of a long-ago squirrel campaign in Atlin (1980-ish) to rid my newly-constructed log cabin of tree rodents that were trying to devalue my investment by moving into the rafters even before we had moved into the ground floor, I know well the dangers associated with declaring war against squirrels on their home ground. I lost the war, even though I had all the firepower on my side in the form of a trusty old .22 caliber short barrel carbine which was designed for the very job at hand.

In my youthful exuberance and ignorance, I turned my building lot into a combat zone and watched the invading squirrels gradually overwhelm me with large numbers. This time, in the current decade, a little way north of Whitehorse, I opted for a more humane, thoughtful and mature way to tackle a similar squirrel problem utilizing a little common sense including live trapping and free transportation across a flowing river, which guaranteed they would never return.

Alas, in a rare moment of ubiquitous serendipity, after giving unwanted taxi rides to about 70 pissed-off red squirrels, I found an even better solution inside the squirrel cage one fine day. A mature female pine marten, which barely fit into the cage, was staring sheepishly through the wire mesh with a resigned look on her cute little face as if she was thinking, “I can’t believe I just got myself trapped inside a damn squirrel cage.”

I couldn’t believe it either and mistook her for a large weasel until I went hunting online, looking at pictures trying to figure out what I had  inadvertently caught. The long, pointy ears gave her away unmistakably as a “North American Pine Marten” which has 14 subspecies:

M. a. americana
M. a. abieticola
M. a. abietinoides
M. a. actuosa
M. a. atrata
M. a. brumalis
M. a. caurina
M. a. humboldtensis
M. a. kenaiensis
M. a. nesophila
M. a. origensis
M. a. sierrae
M. a. vancouverensis
M. a. vulpina

Only one, from Humboldt County in Oregon or  California, is endangered, as it lives in the redwood forest. Another, from Newfoundland and Labrador, is threatened, as it has been isolated on the island for over 7,000 years and is in danger of going the way of the Newfie Wolf … which is extinct.

Most researchers call them carnivores, which they certainly are. Snowshoe hares, squirrels and voles are their favourite diet. Others say they are omnivores who will eat anything, including fruit. After reading that, I put some apples, oranges and grapes out overnight for “Martina,” so named by the grandchildren. It was all gone in the dawn with her morning biological function serving as a thank-you note.

Although I gave some thought to domesticating her for a pet, I decided she was just too beautiful to be caged up and constrained. She wasn’t in the cage much more than an hour that first day when I lifted the trapdoor and turned her loose. She didn’t freak out and run away like you might expect. She walked out slowly, climbed up on the woodpile, then turned to look at me with no fear in her eyes. I told her she was welcome to stay and solve my squirrel problem if she wanted, then she disappeared for a while to think about it, or so it seemed.

Pine martens are primarily solitary and polygamous. The females go into estrus in July or August, do courtship for 15 days, then delay implantation until late winter, gestate for a month and give birth in late March or April.

The females are about two-thirds the size of a male and have their own small range area to feed, sustain and survive. Although it changes according to weather and location, it is common for one male to patrol the areas of five females, but all are solitary the rest of the year when not breeding. About three years ago, Martina moved into the rafters right above my bedroom in the winters to take advantage of the cabin’s heat and fresh fruit, but there is no way I can call her a pet. She is truly a wild pine marten doing her annual duty dance with nature and I’m just a good ol’ buddy who freed her from the squirrel cage and keeps her and her kits supplied with winter goodies. I don’t see much of her in summer and the grandkids have never seen her except in rare photos, since she is primarily nocturnal. However, she’s a trusted employee, friend and confidant since the ongoing squirrel count is presently stalled out at 87. The red squirrel community in this boreal pine, fir, spruce and alder forest where I live has clearly gotten the word that there is a new sheriff in town guarding the funky old cabin where the white-haired dinosaur writes his stories and they stay away.

It’s better this way, to end a war with a nice bowl of fresh fruit instead of a deadly firefight. Don’t you think?

My favourite Johnnie Johns hunting story

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