Resourceful Marmots make use of Man Made Passageways!

It was June 30, 2010. A fresh blanket of snow lay thick on the mountains like it was the middle of winter. Mount Washington opened their Summer Season with a ski weekend! Where on earth was spring?

While skiers and snow boarders reveled in the unseasonably late snowfall, others weren’t quite so happy. Mount Washington is also home to the endangered and uniquely Canadian, Vancouver Island marmot.

After a long hibernation underground, instead of waking to find the mountain bowls peppered in freshly growing herbs and grasses to eat, the marmots woke to find themselves still buried under several meters of snow.

Digging out was no problem, after all marmots are very well equipped for digging, but “greening-up” was delayed by as much as 6-8 weeks at many colonies. And that was a problem.

A marmot’s first priority upon waking is breeding - so, first things first. Then, as the marmots adjust from the slow torpor of their long sleep they become ready to eat real food again. Their fat reserves have sustained them throughout the winter but now, after losing a third of their body weight, they have few reserves left and foraging becomes their next priority.

This is the reason Vancouver Island marmots choose southwestern facing bowls for their colony sites. These bowls receive the most sun exposure making them the first spots to “green-up” in the spring and provide readily available forage - but not this year.

“The marmots at Mount Washington were being spotted in really unusual places,” said marmot crewmember Sean Pendergast. “They left their burrows to forage at lower elevations because food at the colony sites was so scarce.”

“Some were spotted down at the hairpin-turn on the road to the resort. They were using a culvert there as an underpass but they were also running over the top. We were worried about cars so we put up warning signs to alert the public, and then some yahoo stole the signs,” Sean remarked. “Luckily no marmots were hurt, but if you see a couple of Marmot Crossing signs anywhere you know who to call.”

In spite of the extreme conditions, 13 successful litters were born in the wild but the extreme weather took a toll on some of the marmots released last year. They suffered a higher level of hibernation related mortality than in previous years.

A collaborative captive-breeding and release program has increased the number of marmots living in the wild tenfold, from a low of less than 30 in 2003 to approximately 300 in the wild today. In spite of the spring setback, 85 more animals were released to wild habitat on the Island this summer and 70-80 more are scheduled for release next year. The goal is a sustainable population of 600 marmots in the wild.

Primary recovery partners include Mount Washington, Island Timberland, TimberWest, BC Hydro-BCRP, the BC Government, Calgary and Toronto zoos, Mountain View Conservation Centre and individual members of the public through the Marmot Recovery Foundation.

To find out how you can help go to www.marmots.org