Marmots Continue their Struggle to Survive
Photo and story Andrew A. Bryant, Ph.D.
Few visitors to Mount Washington would suspect that this idyllic
landscape conceals an epic struggle.
But it does. North America’s rarest mammal, the Vancouver Island marmot, is literally fighting for its very existence. The Vancouver Island marmot is a unique species that lives nowhere else in the world (so scientists know this housecat-sized creature as “Marmota vancouverensis”). Like all 14 of the world’s marmot species, these animals eat grasses and flowers, hibernate during winter, and engage in a variety of highly social and humourous antics. Indeed, marmots tend to make lifelong friends of those fortunate enough to see them.
These marmots have unique chocolate-brown fur, and differ from other marmots in vocalizations, genetics and social behaviour. Their natural habitat consists of open subalpine areas with good soil for burrowing and a variety of plants to eat. Patches of marmot habitat tend to be small and widely scattered, which is why Vancouver Island marmots are rare to begin with.
As recently as 1990 several hundred marmots remained in the wild. Yet over a few short years the population crashed to fewer than 30 animals. Researchers believe that an imbalance in predators such as cougars, wolves and eagles was responsible for this decline. Luckily for the marmots, an unusual coalition of scientists, government agencies, zoos and private landowners was formed in 1998 to breed marmots in captivity and begin the long process of restoring wild populations. The breeding program has been quite successful so far. Eight litters of pups were born this spring alone, increasing the world population by almost 30%!
Mount Washington Alpine Resort is a major partner in the Recovery Team, and home to one of the largest captive-breeding facilities (marmots are also housed at the Toronto Zoo, Calgary Zoo and Mountain View Farm in Langley, B.C.). The Mt. Washington facility is special because this is where marmots are re-acclimatized to natural weather patterns and natural foods prior to release. Plans are afoot to release upwards of a dozen marmots from here this summer. Wish them well!
In addition to hosting a captive facility (which is not open to the public), Mount Washington is home to the largest remaining wild colony. So when you’re out and about on the mountain this summer, keep your eyes peeled! Marmots can turn up anywhere, but “Hawk run” and “Linton’s Loop” are good places to look. And if you run into some strangely-dressed people carrying large radio antennae, well you’ve just encountered our field crews, who monitor the wild animals daily.
You can learn more about the marmot recovery effort by visiting the “Marmot’s Den” area, which is located on the lower level of the main day lodge. There’s also a wealth of information available on-line at the Recovery Team’s award-winning website (www.marmots.org).
The recovery program survives, like marmots themselves, only because
of the generosity of people like you! So we hope you will consider joining
the “adopt-a-marmot club” or purchasing a “plush”
marmot. Please help us return these animals to the wild, where they