Dec 1, 2014 | Marmot, Winter 2014

Leaving Extinction Behind

Ten short years ago the extinction of the Vancouver Island marmot in the wild seemed imminent.

Vancouver Island marmots were already extinct in more than 70% of their former range, and fewer than 30 marmots were known to remain in the wild.

The last survivors were on only four mountains, in the Nanaimo Lakes region just west of Nanaimo, and at one isolated colony at Mt Washington. Uniquely Canadian, found only on Vancouver Island, the Vancouver Island marmot was all but a memory in the wild.

Fifty-five marmots had been brought into captivity from 1997-2002 for their protection, and as a preservation measure for the species. A captive breeding program began with the hope that we had acted in time to rescue the wild population using captive-born marmots as recruits. It was a frightening process.

An entire species, held on by a thread. It was a slow start. The first release of four captive-bred marmots was unsuccessful. But we did not give up!

The next season nine marmots were released, and following that, fourteen marmots were released. And a wonderful thing happened.

As more marmots became established, their successes increased. More pups were born, fledgling colonies turned into functional colonies and the marmots were able to compensate for the natural predation occurrences, and they began to thrive.

Since then, the number of marmots in the Nanaimo Lakes region has climbed from less than fifteen marmots to an estimated 150-200 marmots, allowing the marmot crew to focus recovery efforts on rebuilding the extinct colonies in Strathcona Park.

This was also a slow and sometimes frustrating process. It seemed as soon as a breeding aged pair became established, our hopes of a litter would be dashed when one of them would be lost to a predator.

But, as we experienced in the south, the more released marmots that became successfully established, the greater the odds for their overall success.

There are now marmots on at least eight mountains at previously extinct colony sites in Strathcona Park, in addition to Mt Washington. And this spring, litters were born at three new breeding sites in the Park at Flower Ridge, Marble Meadows and Sunrise Lake!

Another first was a marmot sighting called into us this summer by Walter Moar, who spotted two Vancouver Island marmots on Mt. Frink in Strathcona Park. That is the first time marmots have been spotted at Mt. Frink since the collapse of the colonies in that region decades ago.

When you go hiking in Strathcona Park next summer, be sure to keep your eye out for one of Canada’s most endangered and rare mammals, the Vancouver Island marmot.
You may become one of the very few people in the world to have actually spotted our illusive Canadian marmot in the wild.

If you are less adventurous but would still like to see one of our rare Canadian marmots, the best place to spot one in the wild is at Mt Washington Resort, where they are often seen frequenting the boulders at Hawk, Invitation and Rick’s Ride.

Or if you are only on the Island for a quick visit, drop by the Visitors Centre in Courtenay (just off exit 117 of the Inland Island Hwy.) where there is a taxidermied Vancouver Island marmot and full mock-up of a marmot burrow the kids can climb inside. Then you too can say, “I saw a Vancouver Island marmot!”

The Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) is one of the largest members of the squirrel family (about the size of a large house cat). Other members of the Sciuridae family include chipmunks, squirrels and woodchucks.

Vancouver Island marmots are easy to recognize by their rich chocolate brown fur with contrasting white patches on their nose, chin, forehead and chest.

HABITAT Vancouver Island marmots live neither in the forest nor on the rocky mountaintops. They live in small patches of south and west-facing sub-alpine and alpine meadows (usually above 1000 meters), where occasional winter avalanches and snow creep prevent trees from taking root. These meadows are the first to become clear of snow and produce the early grasses and sedges the marmots rely upon when they emerge from hibernation.

There they find the forage they need, deep soil for digging (hibernation burrows need to be deep enough to reach below the frost line) and large boulders to provide convenient lookout spots to watch for predators. Boulders also help marmots regulate their internal body temperature; you will often see them stretched out on them in the early mornings and evenings, and are a predictable and necessary feature of marmot habitat.

Underground burrows provide shelter from the elements and protection from predators. Typically 30-45 cm across, burrows range in size and purpose. Small, simple burrows may be used for a quick escape from a predator and larger more complex burrows are used for hibernation and birthing and may have numerous passages and exits. One excavated hibernation burrow measured five meters in length with the sleeping chamber located one meter underground.

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

Story: Victoria Jackson
Marmot Images: Jared Hobbs

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