Mt. Cruiser Climb: A Rare Sighting

by John Rettig

It’s not on every Mazama climb that you get to summit a mountain AND encounter a rarely observed animal. 

But that’s exactly what happened on June 20, 2015, when seven Mazamas stumbled up Mt. Cruiser in the Olympics’ Sawtooth Range with me. 

It was a good reminder that while summit views are almost always spectacular, the things that happen on the way to the summit can be just as spectacular, if not more so.

Mt. Cruiser Needle.
Photo: Glenn Widener
Our group had just stopped for a break, when a little critter suddenly popped out to have a look at us. We were sitting in a rocky area above the tree line between The Needle and Mt. Cruiser. (The exact location is being withheld, in agreement with the US Forest Service (USFS) and National Park Service (NPS) scientists, to protect the individual marten). At first, I dismissed the animal as just another marmot or pika. But after a second, more careful, look, I recognized the narrow-set binocular eyes and very slender build that characterizes members of the weasel family. That the animal was extremely curious about us and our activities, and generally was not particularly wary of our presence, was another indicator that this critter belonged to the Mustelidae family.

The size of the animal suggested it was a marten or fisher, and after some group discussion, we realized we were probably looking at something quite rare. I knew that sightings in the Pacific Northwest have been very rare for any of the Martes genus, as they are known to live at a very low population density, even within their normal range. But this marten was living at the extreme of its documented range. So the sighting was doubly significant. Fortunately, one member of our team, Shem Harding, had his camera ready and was able to take several photographs. We also took note of the marten’s behavior, which included a breathtakingly exposed four-foot jump. We marked the GPS waypoint, then carried on with our climb. When we returned to Portland, I quickly submitted a report and pictures to the USFS, not knowing if there would be any follow-through.

How rare was this sighting? On the Tuesday following the climb, within a half hour of the report reaching the NPS and USFS wildlife scientists, my email inbox ignited with descriptions of how meaningful our sighting was, along with kind words of thanks for documenting and reporting it.
According to Dr. Patricia Happe, Wildlife Branch Chief at Olympic National Park, “Neither I nor any of my crew is likely to go near [Mt. Cruiser]—we are all hikers, but no one is a climber—maybe that is why we have not been finding any marten after all these years of looking …The last verified sighting of a marten in our region was in 2008 near Mt. Rose … [And then] the fisher study JUST (June 3, 2015) picked up a marten in the upper Hoh Valley. Your sighting [on top of this one] near Mt. Cruiser, in a completely different area, is really exciting.”

Betsy Howell, Wildlife Biologist with the Olympic National Forest wrote, “We have been trying for many years to get information on where marten are residing in the park and forest and haven’t had much luck … Olympic National Park and National Forest, along with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Geological Survey, are planning more marten surveys this winter and we’ll be having a meeting soon to discuss. We’ll definitely be talking about your sighting.”

The lesson that our marten sighting drives home for me is just how extremely important it is that we all act as responsible stewards for the alpine areas that we love. This encounter is an example of yet another way we can manifest that stewardship. Buried in the email clamor in my inbox was the suggestion that future studies might be able to take advantage of the Mazamas frequent access to the rocky summit areas above tree line. We’ve since prevailed upon other climbs headed into the area to be on the lookout and to observe and record. 

Learning how to observe and photograph animals in the wilderness, especially for gender identification, and recording GPS coordinates and gathering scat samples for DNA and other studies will help scientists evaluate the diversity, diet, and health of a given population. Reporting any marten or fisher sightings on the Olympic Peninsula will further this important work. You may submit information about a sighting or request a training by sending an email to conservation@mazamas.org.

Pacific Marten: The Facts

The Pacific marten, Martes Caurina, is a rarely seen mammal in Washington’s Olympic National Forest. It is a carnivore from the Mustelidae family, which includes wolverines, badgers, otters, skunks, minks, martens, fishers, weasels, and ferrets. Because it was heavily trapped from the 1890s through the 1940s, it was nearly extirpated. In spite of formal winter studies conducted from 2001 onward, there have been only four verified sightings in 27 years. In 1988, one was seen alive and photographed near The Brothers Wilderness; a spotted owl study found two in a live trap in 1990 in the Buckhorn Wilderness (they were released); in 2008 a deceased juvenile Pacific marten was found by hikers near Mt. Rose; and in 2015 one was photographed in the Hoh Valley with an automated wildlife camera, as part of a fisher study. Our discovery—during a Mazama climb up Mt. Cruiser in June 2015—now brings the number to five verified sightings, and the first one in 25 years to be seen alive in person. 

In spite of significant efforts to locate and document the Pacific marten (the 2013-14 winter study involved 15 volunteers working 12 different days, which equates to 78 working days) the studies did not yield any martens (although they did result in documenting a rich and diverse wildlife population of cougars, bobcats, coyote, deer, elk, and yes—humans and domestic dogs). We have, in fact, encountered wolves in Oregon more times than we have martens in the Olympics—and we know there are only 77 wolves in nine packs in Oregon, as of the end of 2014. The contrast is quite stark!

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