An elusive member of the weasel family has been caught on camera in Northern New Mexico, thanks to the efforts of two environmental advocacy organizations.
"The animal is missing from the landscape, and we want to determine if it’s still present and in what numbers," said Bryan Bird, southwest programs director for Defenders of Wildlife.
Along with Wildlands Network, Defenders of Wildlife deployed 50 wildlife cameras across hundreds of miles of Carson National Forest land between El Rito and the Colorado border, successfully capturing a few images of a single Pacific marten in September. The cameras, which also revealed the presence of cougar and long-tailed weasel, among other creatures, will remain in service through this winter and next winter.
"There are few recent sightings of Pacific marten in New Mexico," Bird said. "Confirming at least one gives us some hope for its future in New Mexico."
The Pacific marten, whose southermost habitat extends into the southern rockies in north-central New Mexico, is listed in New Mexico as a "species of greatest conservation need." Reddish brown in color, the Pacific marten shares thickly-wooded forest habitat with Canada lynx and snowshoe hare.
Michael Dax, western program director for Wildlands Network, said that, with respect to both Canada lynx and Pacific marten, "Our first question is, 'Are they here?' And to what degree are they here — is there a kind of population?"
In its State Wildlife Action Plan, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish describes the Pacific marten as a "medium-to-large-sized weasel that is distributed across the western United States and British Columbia, Canada." But its distribution, population numbers and other information are currently unknown in New Mexico.
"They haven't ever done substantial research on martens here for at least the last 30 years," said Aaron Facka, western region senior wildlife biologist with Wildlands Network. "No one really knows how widely distributed they are, how interconnected they are to other populations in Colorado or even further north. More importantly, no one really knows what the trends have been — are they stable, are they declining?"
Facka and Dax invited the Taos News out to the forest surrounding Hopewell Lake west of Tres Piedras last Friday (Nov. 11), when, despite even more snow on the ground than was anticipated, they trekked into predicted Pacific marten habitat to swap out memory cards on several of the wildlife cameras.
Tracking down the first of the day's cameras, Dax checked the tin of wet cat food that serves as one element of a two-part bait. He adjusted a string holding the perforated can up against a tree trunk. Then he removed a small but pungent bottle from a double-sealed container in his backpack.
It was "Gusto" weasel bait, whose production description reads: "When you crack the cap, you will certainly smell skunk. But underneath you will detect a sweet odor consisting of a generous dose of castor and muskrat musk."
He dribbled the marten bait liberally on a tree branch above the cat food, all of which was about 15 feet in front of the wildlife camera. Facka was swapping memory cards in the background.
"We try to have only one person dedicated to handling this stuff on any trip," Dax said, replacing the bait back in its containers. There were 500 images on one camera's memory card and 7,000 on another camera they checked. Branches across from both cameras were anointed liberally with Gusto.
Dax said the goal of the current phase of the project is to produce data that will establish a baseline by which to measure the general health of marten populations in Northern New Mexico, which could inform potential land management decisions that might improve or degrade the animal's preferred habitat; two critical features of marten habitat are copious dead and downed trees amid old growth forest, and early snowfall.
"The next step might be to do a telemetry project or something where we collar individuals, identify animals so we can say, 'There's 10s of them' or 'There's 100s of them,' and know how long they live, what kills them, what areas they're avoiding and which ones they're using," Facka said, adding that there's a bigger-picture reason to study the Pacific marten's southernmost habitat.
"This is one of the frontlines of understanding climate change," he added, explaining that Pacific martens are adapted to burrow under snow to live, where they search for prey like voles and other rodents. "This is the southern extent in the Rockies for martens; they don't go any further south. But, especially for the species like marten who rely on these kinds of deep snows and high elevation, if the snow disappears and the hares disappear, they become more susceptible to predatory species, like bobcats, or even owls. Understanding how species are affected by snow, if it is becoming less deep, longer lasting, or not as deep, is really important.
"And they're a great indicator of the health of these older, higher-elevation mature forests," Facka added.
Dax said the Pacific marten data will also be able to serve as a bellwether for the health of many other species in north-central New Mexico.
"It's important as an indication of the impacts of climate change that we're seeing," he said. "For a full suite of species, I think marten can be considered somewhat representative."