Are Scat Surveys a Reliable Method for Assessing Distribution and Population Status of Pine Martens?

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Abstract

Systematic searches for marten feces or’ scats’ have been used since 1980 for assessing the status of protected populations of pine martens (Martes martes) in Britain. Previous surveys using scats have relied on unsubstantiated assumptions that martens typically defecate along roads and trails, that martens inhabit primarily woodland habitats, and that scats from martens can reliably be distinguished from those of other carnivores. Results of scat surveys have drawn conflicting conclusions about population status, which has lead to disagreement about conservation action, and doubts about the reliability and validity of assumptions associated with the technique. We reviewed the recent history of survey programs for pine marten populations in Great Britain. We examined the assumptions made in different surveys and considered these critically. The scat survey technique has several limitations, and is likely to be least reliable where populations of martens are low and where distribution is uneven. New DNA testing approaches revealed the inaccuracy of marten scat identification in the field. We recommend that scat surveys should be conducted only when genetic verification is available to confirm scat identity.