Vancouver Island Marmots Finally Turning the Corner
ANDREW A. BRYANT, Scientific Advisor Marmot Recovery Foundation
Every skier or snowboarder knows what pleasure comes from making a good turn. Expert or novice, the key is to make considered movements. A good turn just feels good, and it doesn't hurt that it might happen amidst such wonderful scenery as Mount Washington offers.
There is another good turn happening. Underfoot. Literally. As you
zoom down Linton's Loop or some of Mount Washington's other runs, you
are in fact visiting the home of North America's rarest mammal.
That's no exaggeration.
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.
The Vancouver Island marmot is 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. Researchers have described them as the most social of the world's marmots, which is why I like to describe them as a truly ‘Canadian’ kind of species.
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 bleak. Which is why I'm delighted to report that the population has now doubled, to about 155 individuals, and the population is growing.
How did this happen? Basically, an unusual coalition of government employees, loggers, hunters, scientists, zookeepers and yes, skiers decided that extinction was a bad idea and decided to do something about it.
A captive-breeding program was begun 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 past spring we had 48 pups born in captivity. There are currently 123 marmots at 4 locations, including the Toronto Zoo, Calgary Zoo, the MountainView Breeding and Conservation Centre in Langley, and a specially-designed facility here on land generously provided by Mount Washington Alpine Resort.
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. Next summer we hope to release 20-25. Most importantly, the released animals are behaving just as wild born marmots do, eating grasses and flowers, digging burrows and hibernating from early October to early May.
So, while you're making that perfect curve, remember that marmots are sleeping deep underfoot. But even while they won't move again until next spring, in their own way they have also just turned an important corner. 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 we need your ongoing support.
To learn more, please visit our website at www.marmots.org
or visit the Marmot's Den, located in the main day lodge.