And biologist Andrew Bryant is giving full credit to the Mt. Washington Marmot Breeding Centre. In late October, the recovery program moved seven male and female marmots into the newly constructed “halfway house” located near the Mt. Washington Alpine resort.
After a couple of days of checking out their new digs, the marmots got down to the business of hibernating. They will slumber for approximately 210 days – about 80 more days than their lower elevation counterparts at breeding centres in the Calgary and Toronto zoos.
“They’re pretty much down,” said Dr. Andrew Bryant, the Nanaimo biologist who heads up the Marmot Recovery Foundation. “Virtually all the animals went down within a few short days … which was encouraging.”
“In a very real sense, we’ve made the first steps in bringing this guy back,” Bryant said.
The Vancouver Island marmot has been on the endangered species list for about a decade. That’s how long Bryant and the rest of the Marmot Recovery Foundation team has been working to bring the species back. There are only 77 known Vancouver Island marmots left, 47 of those in captivity.
The Mt. Washington Breeding Centre was completed in the summer of 2001 under a tight deadline: the recovery program needs more marmots before they can start releasing them into the wild. The 6,000-square-foot, $1.2-million facility is designed to acclimatize captive-bred marmots before they are released back into the wild.
The hope is that the captive-bred animals will then re-populate existing marmot colonies, or create their own. The facility is a cross between a dog kennel and a state-of-the-art veterinary clinic. The interior was designed in wings – the third wing has yet to be built – that can keep animals separated in case of disease.
There’s a quarantine area and a surgery where the marmots are tagged with radio equipment before being released into the wild; a feed storage area; staff area with a kitchen and hide-a-bed. There are two rooms with monitoring equipment and all the pens are equipped with closed circuit television cameras.
The marmots are housed in concrete and steel mesh pens, eight feet by 10 feet, that run both indoors and outdoors, with “animal doors” between the two. The pens are connected by runways, and by changing a door here or there, marmots can be introduced to one another for breeding purposes. The whole facility can accommodate 80 to 140 marmots, Bryant said. “The idea is to allow the marmots to choose their own environment that makes them the happiest at the time,” he said. In the spring, field workers hope to convert the outside pens to mimic the marmots’ natural habitat. Soil will be brought in so marmots can dig, rocks will be added for perches, and lupin will be planted so they can forage for their own food (although their diet is supplemented with dry pellets – a scientific brand of Purina rodent chow supplemented with vegetables).
Bryant said the facility is “fabulous. We built it so it’s hard to be critical of your own baby, but so far there’s not been a single glitch … personally, I’m delighted.”
The best part of the breeding program, he says, is the pups that were born last year are now ready to breed. They are also looking at releasing some of the two-year-olds, because that’s the age at which they usually form their own colonies. “We may even be able to release a couple of animals in the spring,” he said.
Although the breeding centre is not open to the public, people will soon be getting an intimate glimpse into the marmots’ lives. In about three months Bryant is hoping to set up a live television feed from the centre to an interpretive area that Mt. Washington has generously donated in its main lodge.
The interpretive centre will be set up, appropriately enough, in the Marmot Den, on the lower floor of the alpine lodge. Displays explaining all about marmots, their habitat, the Mt. Washington Breeding Centre and the Marmot Recovery Program will line the walls.
Bryant said he will also assemble compilation tapes for the public, because the marmots are most active in the early morning and late evening.
Mt. Washington general manager Peter Gibson is excited about the “Marmot TV” project for a couple of reasons. “I think next spring is going to be exciting when the young are born,” he said.
The other benefit to having the television feed will be to keep the curious away from the breeding centre itself. “People are going to want to see them, but (the centre) will be closed to the public,” he said.