Ojibwe Lifeway: Respecting Our Culture (“biboon”-winter)

Can you find the three figures that represent the Marten Clan?
In this unit you will investigate the impacts of a warming climate on cultural practices that occur during the winter months. For the Lake Superior Ojibwe, winter (biboon) is the time for storytelling. We will start by telling the story of the American marten, a culturally important animal being to the Lake Superior Ojibwe. The marten has been called an indicator of how a warming climate may affect other wildlife species. As you work through this unit, you will investigate other stories of how climate change is affecting winter activities and traditions important to Wisconsin’s culture and economy.
Key Being: American marten (waabizheshi)

Possible climate change stressors: Warming winter temperatures, lack of snow, higher summer temperatures, changing precipitation patterns

Impacts include: Habitat changes, changes in food sources, competition from other beings (species), decline or loss of beings

  • Understand the importance of the American marten to the Ojibwe culture, both historically and today.
  • Identify habitat conditions needed to sustain the American marten.
  • Identify three indicators that suggest Wisconsin’s winters are warming based on an evaluation of both scientific climate change trends and Evidence that you can see, feel, or experience based on what you observe around you. place-based evidence.
  • Describe specific climate change trends that could negatively affect the sustainability of some wildlife beings, while benefiting other beings. Be able explain the impact on each being.
  • Develop and test a hypothesis to determine how these climate change stressors are affecting Lake Superior’s coastal communities, ecosystems, and cultures.
  • Implement a service learning project to educate others about how to reduce climate change impacts.

The American marten is a small, rare member of the weasel family. It is Wisconsin’s only endangered mammal, although it is abundant elsewhere. Martens weigh about 2 pounds. Their bodies are long and low. Measuring about 18-22 inches long and standing about 6 inches high, they are about three times longer than they are tall. Their fur can range from pale buff to dark brown with black legs and long bushy black tails.
American Marten, WDNR photo
They have a distinctive light tan fur on their throats. In winter, martens grow long hairs between the toe pads on their feet which work like insulated “snowshoes” that keep their paws warm and help them travel over deep, fluffy snow.

Martens are omnivores and eat both plants and animals, but most of their diet consists of small rodents. They are excellent climbers. They will pursue their prey up a tree or climb a tree to escape danger. On bare ground, martens move in a zigzag fashion that includes a series of jumps. Martens have a high metabolism and require a lot of food for energy.

The marten is a culturally significant clan animal for the Ojibwe. Traditionally, the Ojibwe clan system was created to provide leadership and to care for people’s needs. There were seven original clans. Each clan was known by its animal emblem, or totem. The animal totem symbolized the strength and duties of the clan. The marten represents the warrior clan of the Ojibwe.

In Wisconsin, marten use forests where there is a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees. These are cool, moist environments dominated by mature shade tolerant evergreen trees like spruce, hemlock, and white cedar, mixed with hardy hardwood trees like yellow birch and maple. This forest type can provide the habitat conditions needed by martens. The sheltering branches of coniferous trees create a protective, closed overhead canopy. The The layer of vegetation made up of smaller trees and shrubs that grow between the forest tree top canopy and the forest floor. understory of vegetation growing below provides a secondary layer of cover. Standing live trees and plenty of woody debris, including snags, stumps, branches and downed logs offer winter cover, resting, and den sites. This woody debris also provides habitat for small rodents which are the marten’s primary food source.
Snow is also an important habitat feature in many areas where marten are found. Marten are well adapted to snow. With their built-in snowshoe-like paws, the lightweight marten can easily walk on top of deep fluffy snow. They will also move under the snow for protection or scoot through the fluffy top layers in search of prey or to move between places.

The marten’s adaptations for deep snow are particularly important in areas like northern Wisconsin. Here martens share habitats with the fisher, a larger and heavier member of the weasel family. Marten and fisher compete for the same shelter and prey beings they eat. Fisher also kill martens. In habitats with deep, fluffy snow, the marten‘s built in “snowshoes” give it an advantage over the fisher that lacks this adaptation.

At one time, the marten’s A geographical area where an animal normally lives range included nearly all of Wisconsin’s forested areas. The clear cutting of northern Wisconsin’s coniferous and deciduous forests in the late 1850’s-1930’s and the searing fires that followed, led to a destruction of their habitat. Combined with unregulated trapping, Marten populations rapidly declined. The last confirmed report of an
American marten in Wisconsin was recorded in 1925 in Douglas County.

By the 1950’s the forests in some areas had recovered enough to offer larger tracts of continuous mature forests needed by martens. American martens were recognized by wildlife managers as a “unique and desirable component of wilderness forest ecosystems” and plans were made to re-introduce them into Wisconsin.

The return of martens to Wisconsin began in 1953 when five animals were released on Lake Superior’s Stockton Island. Larger scale restocking efforts began in 1975 on the Nicolet National Forest and in the 1980’s in Chequamegon Nicolet National Forests where suitable mature mixed deciduous-coniferous forest habitat could be found. Today small populations of American martens can be found in the Wisconsin’s most northern tier of counties.

Climate-related disturbance to forest habitat types preferred by martens, such as mature forests with closed canopies and Refers to a forest with a wide variety in the density and types of canopy cover, standing live trees, large amounts of logs, stumps, and branches which provide resting sites, ends, and areas for prey. complex structure, could affect their sustainability in Wisconsin’s Lake Superior region. Consistent, deep winter snowpack is also a critical habitat condition. These are among the climate variables that could have the greatest impact on the sustainability of the American marten:

Shorter, Warmer Winters: Warmer winters mean more precipitation falling as freezing rain or ice, making the snowpack denser or melting it prematurely. These changes could reduce the marten’s ability to use fluffy deep snow as a blanket of protection from extreme winter temperatures. Dense heavy snowpack will make it more difficult, or impossible, for the marten to burrow into to find prey or to travel through to reach resting sites. Prey species, like small rodents, also rely on snow for cover during the winter. Less snow could reduce the number of prey species, reducing the amount of food available to martens. In habitats where marten and fisher co-exist, the quantity and quality of snow is critically important. Martens lose their advantage over fishers in areas where there is less snow or a denser snowpack.

Increased Summer Temperatures: Higher summer temperatures could result in heat stress to American martens. A warming climate may force American martens as a species to move northward. Warmer temperatures will also change the types of tree species found in habitats where martens are currently found. New tree species may not provide the same structural habitat features needed by martens.

Changing Precipitation: Less precipitation, in the form of rain during the critical growing season, can limit the amount of available soil moisture to plants. This can affect the sustainability of tree species, like hemlock, spruce, and yellow birch that prefer moist soils and provide the critical habitat features needed by the American marten.
Drought: This variable is linked to rising air temperatures and decreased soil moisture from less precipitation and less frequent precipitation. Many of the tree species that provide marten habitat prefer cool temperatures and moist soils. Drought also increases the risk for fire and pest outbreaks in these forests.

Fire, Disease and Pests Outbreaks: Intact ecosystems are better able to withstand changes caused by a warming climate. Hotter and drier conditions can increase the risk of events such as fire, storms, and insect and disease outbreaks that seriously affect the health of the ecosystems that support martens.
Wildlife Climate Change Winners and Losers
Not all wildlife beings will need to leave areas of Wisconsin due to climate change.

Wildlife beings with these characteristics may be better able to adapt to climate change:
  • Have shorter amount of time between each new generation
  • Are widely distributed across a number of habitats
  • Are mobile and can easily re-locate to areas with suitable climate conditions
  • Are habitat “generalists” rather than “specialists”
  • Are not sensitive to human activity

Which wildlife beings do you think might benefit from a warming Wisconsin?


The bottom line is that climate change threatens Wisconsin’s biodiversity of wildlife beings. How could climate change affect the wildlife species you enjoy?