Not Your Typical Marmot Colony!

Mount Washington Alpine Resort is the home mountain for a number of ski and snowboard clubs, and they are a busy bunch. Here’s what they’ll be up to in the 2017-18 season...

Vancouver Island Marmots make their home and thrive on Mount Washington.
Vancouver Island Marmots make their home and thrive on Mount Washington.

In fact, Mount Washington’s role in the helping marmots recover in the wild is growing.

Vancouver Island Marmots are a sub-alpine member of the squirrel family, about the size of a large house-cat. Typically, they live in remote, mountain meadows. In the 1990s, their population crashed, likely the result of habitat disruption and predation. Years of work have secured habitat for the species, and a captive breeding program has re-introduced marmots born at the Calgary and Toronto Zoos to mountains where the species had once been wiped out. From just 30 marmots in 2003, there are now about 200 in the wild.

However, there are still challenges to overcome before this rare species achieves a stable population. “Marmots born in at a Zoo have a lot to learn very quickly once they are released to the wild,” explains Cheyney Jackson, a biologist with the Marmot Recovery Foundation. “They have to adjust to a completely new environment, learn to avoid predators effectively, and pack on enough weight to survive their next hibernation, all at the same time. It’s asking a lot of a young marmot.”

This is where Mount Washington comes in. “It definitely isn’t your typical marmot colony,” says Jackson. She was part of a research team that concluded that Mount Washington’s unique characteristics make it the perfect spot for a bit of ‘marmot education.’ 

The team that included Jackson and researchers from the Calgary Zoo looked at the success of marmots that had been released to Mount Washington for one year before being moved into more remote, wild colonies. 

“The marmots that spent a year in the wild at Mount Washington did worlds better; the difference was just astounding.” 

Why? Strangely enough, part of the answer may be people. “We think one of the big reasons marmots do so well at Mount Washington is that summer hikers and tourists scare away predators that would hang around and eat marmots in more remote areas,” explains Jackson. 

The marmots themselves are tolerant of people, as long as we keep our distance. “If they stand up, run, or duck underground, you’ve moved too close. Just back up and stay quiet, and the marmots usually come back out after a few minutes.” 

Mount Washington seeds their ski runs with marmot-friendly plants as well, ensuring that there is plenty of food for inexperienced marmots to find.

By the time big crowds arrive, the marmots are underground, deep in hibernation. “Skiers aren’t going to wake up a hibernating marmot,” says Jackson. “They are under snow, rocks, and soil, in an extremely slow metabolic state.” 

That’s not to say that people being close to marmots always goes smoothly. “In the summer months, we have had issues with dogs, unfortunately – we’d really encourage everyone to not to bring dogs up onto the ski runs. But the vast majority of people are incredibly respectful of the marmots. It’s what has made this location such a success for the species.”

Once these Zoo-born marmots have some ‘real life’ experience, they are moved to truly wild spots in Strathcona Provincial Park. 

There, these pre-conditioned marmots seem much better equipped to survive the harsh weather and find food and mates on their own, all while avoiding predators.

Mind you, not every marmot is enthusiastic about the move. “We were a little shocked when Macallan, a marmot we moved to Mount Albert Edward in 2015, showed up back at Mount Washington one day this summer,” says Jackson. 

So, will he have to move back? “No,” laughs Jackson, “he’s made his point. We’ll let him stay here.”

If you would like to help to recover our endangered Canadian marmot visit www.marmots.org and join the Adopt-a-Marmot Club.

Story: Adam Taylor

Malcolm McAdie, Cheyney Jackson and Norberto Pancera (L to R) release  a marmot to Mount Washington in the Summer of 2017.
Malcolm McAdie, Cheyney Jackson and Norberto Pancera (L to R) release a marmot to Mount Washington in the Summer of 2017.