Vancouver Island Marmots Return from the Abyss
As spring comes to the high country, one of Mount Washington’s few year-round residents continues its long tradition of awakening from hibernation, feasting on the early wildflowers and grasses, and looking for love!
I refer, of course, to that most elegant and humorous of creatures, the Vancouver Island Marmot. This unique species (scientists know it as Marmota vancouverensis, one of 14 marmot species in the wordl), was until very recently the most critically endangered animal in Canada.
There are currently believed to be only about 65 of these engaging ground squirrels remaining in the wild. That would be a most disheartening number, were it not for the fact that that is about double what it used to be.
As recently as 2001, this engaging and highly social ground squirrel teetered on the brink of extinction, with a wild population of only about 30 individuals.
With the help of government, companies such as Mount Washington Alpine Resort, individual donors from around the world, and scores of scientists, veterinarians, field researchers, publicists and fund-raisers, a captive-breeding a captive-breeding program was begun literally at the last possible moment, in 1997. This program has been highly successful to date æ currently there are more than 140 marmots in captivity.
Successful breeding has occurred at all four of our captive facilities (the Toronto Zoo, the Calgary Zoo, Mountain View Conservation Society, and the breeding facility located here on land generously provided by Mount Washington).
Last year was especially successful, with a record number of pups born in captivity - 56! In fact, the population is growing at a rate of about 30% annually, which is very happy news indeed.
This positive growth rate not only means that that marmots have barely dodged the bullet of complete extinction, but that we are now in a position to begin returning marmots to the wild.
Last summer we released 31 individuals, and this year that number will be even higher. Ultimately, marmots have been successfully returned to five mountains from which they disappeared during the late 1990s.
How are the released marmots doing? In general we’ve learned that marmots released in previous years are behaving just as wild-born marmots do, eating grasses and flowers, digging burrows and hibernating in appropriate places.
In what is perhaps the most gratifying result of all, two captive-born marmots (named Haida and Onslo) that were released in 2004 also had a litter of pups last summer, becoming the first pair to complete the process of becoming truly wild marmots again and perpetuating the cycle of life.
We are very excited this year, which will be the first year in which we will return marmots to Strathcona Provincial Park. It will take many more years of effort, of course, to achieve the recovery goal of a self-sustaining wild population of 400-600 marmots. This is why your ongoing support is so critical.
But ultimately the prognosis more hopeful than it’s been in years. So as you wander the mountain trails this summer, keep you eyes and ears peeled. The odds of seeing a marmot are actually much better than they were.
Thanks to people like you, I believe this living example of our biological heritage has a bright future.
To learn more about Vancouver Island Marmots or how you can become involved, 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.
Andrew A. Bryant Scientific Advisor, Marmot Recovery Foundation