Mount Washington Crucial for Marmot Recovery
The news this past spring out of Strathcona Provincial Park wasn’t what the Vancouver Island Marmot recovery crew was hoping for.
At least 36 marmots in the region had died since the previous year, disappointing news for the recovery of this iconic and unique, but also critically endangered, species. Yet those closest to the recovery effort continue to be optimistic, and they say Mount Washington Alpine Resort is an important part of why they have a positive outlook on the future of their favorite species. “Obviously, it wasn’t what we were hoping to find,” says Cheyney Jackson, a biologist who has been working on marmot recovery for over 10 years.
Jackson leads field work for the Marmot Recovery Foundation, and she was on the front lines of the monitoring that revealed the sharp decline. “At first, you think maybe some of the marmots are just still in hibernation. It is disheartening as you go out again, only to discover that these marmots have indeed died.” The deaths were a result of a combination of activity by predators and a poor year for overwinter survival following a severe drought the fall before. “You always know that predators are going to eat a number of marmots. That’s part of nature,” says Jackson, “but the poor overwinter survival was a surprise.”
But after putting in another summer of field work, and looking at the data she and her field crew gathered, Jackson’s optimism returned. “Despite these challenges it is still important to maintain a proper perspective, even when you’re working so closely with these animals,” says Malcolm McAdie, wildlife veterinarian for the recovery project for almost 20 years.
“You care for each of them and know most of them by name. It can be hard when you hear bad news. But when you look at where we are today, and some of the challenges we’ve faced over the years, you begin to realize that this is part of the process of recovery, and that we are on the right track. Our ultimate goal is to build the wild population to the point where it is resilient enough to withstand periods of increased predation pressure or poor weather without our help.”
By the late 1990s, marmots had disappeared from the many of the Island’s mountains, and by 2003 fewer than 30 marmots remained in the wild, including 10 at Mount Washington. That same year, the first captive bred marmots were released.
Initially efforts focused on the more southern population of marmots in the Nanaimo Lakes region and the colony at Mount Washington. “Outside of Mount Washington, marmots had been completely extirpated from the Strathcona region,” explains McAdie, “so we made the decision to support the remnants of the southern population and Mount Washington first and try to get these into better shape before turning our attention towards Strathcona.”
Even though the primary focus was in the south, Mount Washington Alpine Resort has been a key player in the recovery effort. In addition to housing a purpose-built facility to support the breeding and release of marmots, the wild marmot colony on the ski hill continued to thrive. And in the south, the marmot recovery was going well, with the population growing to eight times its 2003 size in less than 10 years. At least, that’s how it seems in hindsight. As McAdie recalls, things felt a little different at the time. “We had the same kinds of setbacks in the Nanaimo Lakes during those years that we had in Strathcona this year,” recalls McAdie.
“Looking back, it’s easy to forget the hard times, when marmots didn’t make it through hibernation, or when predation pressure was higher than usual. There were, and still are, challenges and recovery in the south isn’t complete either. Working with a critically endangered species, you have to accept that it’s going to be a bumpy road. The important thing is to look at the trend line.”
By 2008, the Nanaimo Lakes colonies were in better shape and attention began to turn to recovering the marmots in Strathcona Provincial Park. “Recovering the Strathcona population was always a goal for us,” says Jackson. “It is historical marmot habitat, it’s almost all protected as parkland. In the long-run, we think it might be the best Vancouver Island Marmot habitat there is.”
But the short-term, the team knew there would be challenges. “The problem was that outside of Mount Washington, there were no marmots left at all. Marmots are social animals, and with no survivors on the landscape, we knew it would be harder to re-introduce marmots successfully.” The team looked for ways to help the marmots cope in harsher conditions, and their eyes quickly turned to Mount Washington Alpine Resort. “The ski hill has always been exceptionally good for the marmots. We suspect that having people around helps keep away predators,” says Jackson.
In fact, by 2011, reproduction on the ski hill was so strong that the team began to think about moving some of the offspring into Strathcona Park. “When marmots are two or three years old, many naturally move away from their birth colony and search for a new colony to join. We decided to save them some time and effort, and started flying these ‘teenagers’ out by helicopter with the captive-bred marmots.”
The combination of moving wild-born marmots and supplementing with captive-bred marmots resulted in significant growth in the Strathcona population. From zero marmots, the population grew to as high as 84. Then came news of the setback this past spring. “I have to remind myself that this happens when you’re working with endangered species. It’s happened before, and honestly, it’ll probably happen again,” says Cheyney. “The population is still recovering, but even with this setback, it’s still heading in the right direction.”
The positive impact of the work put into the Strathcona colonies was observed this summer when field crew spotted pups-of-the-year. Despite the challenges of the past year, marmots in Strathcona Park were still breeding and producing litters of healthy pups. The whole recovery crew had been hoping for just this evidence that the marmots were still recovering in their historic home. Mount Washington will continue to play an important role in the marmots’ recovery.
The team is now trialing ‘pre-conditioning’, where captive-bred marmots are released to Mount Washington for one winter, to teach them about life in the wild, before moving them into the Park. But they are cognizant of not over-taxing the Mount Washington colony itself. “This colony’s been a lifeline for us in Strathcona. We don’t want to jeopardize that,” says Jackson.
What You Can Do:
• If you are on the ski hill with your pets, please keep them on leashes. Dogs in particular will chase marmots, depriving them of important feeding time.
• If you see a marmot, especially if it’s in an unusual spot, please let us know! Email email@example.com or call 250 390-0006.
Your generous support makes recovery of the marmot possible. Make a gift through the Marmot Recovery Foundation’s website at www.marmots.org or by calling 250 390-0006.