Vancouver Island Marmots: The Momentum Grows
As the last of the winter snow melts and the cool days of spring lead to warmer weather, some of our friends return.
ANDREW A. BRYANT Scientific Advisor, Marmot Recovery Foundation
They have names like Shelby, April, Chance, or William. Actually, "return" is not quite correct, for I'm referring to Vancouver Island Marmots, and in fact they've been here all along. Sleeping deep underneath the talus slopes and ski-runs. Now that spring has sprung, Mount Washington's permanent residents have emerged from hibernation and begun their annual cycle of mating, eating grasses and producing pups.
Our marmots are one of 14 distinct marmot species in the world. Canada is home to 4 species (Hoary Marmots, Yellow-bellied Marmots, Woodchucks and Vancouver Island Marmots), but only the Vancouver Island species has unique chocolate-brown fur and such unusual behavior.
One notable trait is their capacity for sleep -- Vancouver Island Marmots hibernate for over 6 and a half months each year! Here on Mount Washington, marmots typically enter hibernation in early October, not emerging until mid May in the following year. That fact means that the urban legend that Mount Washington closes each spring to protect the marmots is just that -- there is in fact no overlap between the ski season and the "marmot season."
And that's good news for North America's rarest mammal. The Vancouver Island Marmot (scientists know this species as Marmota vancouverensis) lives only on Vancouver Island. The wild population of this critically endangered species is currently believed to contain about 35 individuals. That's right. Only 35.
As recently as 1998, this engaging ground squirrel tottered on the brink of extinction, with a world population of about 70 individuals. The future looked grim indeed. I'm very pleased to be able to report that since then the population has more than doubled. In fact it will likely exceed 200 marmots this year. How did this happen? Basically, it happened because of people like you.
We began a captive-breeding program in 1997 with a handful of marmots. Through the Marmot Recovery Foundation, donors from around the world supported this program and the scientific research needed to make it work. And worked it has this spring we've had 14 litters of pups born, including 8 born at the facility here on Mount Washington.
But breeding marmots was only the first step. Now we've begun the process of restoring wild populations by releasing captive-born marmots back to the wild. We started slowly, in 2003, by releasing 4 marmots. In 2004 we released 9 and in 2005 we released 15. Over the coming weeks our field crews plan to release about another 30 to the wild. Most importantly, we've learned that marmots released in previous years are behaving just as wild-born marmots do, eating grasses and flowers, digging burrows and yes, sleeping as only marmots can do!
We have high hopes that this year will see another milestone achieved -- pups born in the wild to captive-born parents. Stay tuned! In a very real way the population decline has been stopped, and reversed. It will take years, of course, to achieve the recovery goal of a self-sustaining wild population of 400-600 marmots. Which is why your ongoing support is so critical for this species.
To learn more about Vancouver Island marmots, please visit our website at www.marmots.org or visit the Marmot's Den, which is located on the ground floor of the main day lodge.