Vancouver Island marmot: A good year for one of world's rarest mammals

As the snow falls and colonies of the Vancouver Island marmot begin plugging the entrances to their burrows with soil in preparation for hibernation, the people who watch over them are sifting through field reports and sorting megabytes of photos to determine the health of the critically endangered species.

Although a final estimate of their numbers is still a few weeks away, Adam Taylor, executive director of the Marmot Recovery Foundation, said overall, it was a good year for one of the world’s rarest mammals.

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The foundation released 14 marmots into the wild from its captive breeding program, and another three animals were relocated to strengthen emerging colonies. Good rainfall through the spring produced lush vegetation and plenty of food in most of the alpine regions, said Taylor.

Although a forest fire burned along the border of one colony in the Nanaimo Lakes region, no marmots were harmed, he added, although the animals weathered weeks of smoke from close and distant wildfires.

Based on initial counts in the spring and early summer, about 46 pups were born in the wild. That’s down from about 60 last year, but Taylor said that was expected, as marmots usually take a break in breeding cycles every other year.

Taking into account losses to predators and other unforeseen deaths due to weather and food supplies, Taylor estimates the final population count to be just over 200. In 2019, the mean observation count — the average between low and high counts — was 196, although there are undoubtedly some marmots that escape detection every year, the foundation says.

The Island’s unique marmot species hit a low point of fewer than 30 animals in 2003. But massive recovery efforts led by breeding programs at the Calgary and Toronto zoos and at the Tony Barrett Mount Washington Recovery Centre — as well as huge habitat-protection projects — have helped to slowly rebuild populations on the Island’s alpine meadows.

Marmots in 20 colonies were observed this year, a promising upswing from the previous three years. In 2013, the population hit a high of 346, but weather and predators, among other factors, took a huge toll. The following year, 266 animals were counted. By 2017, the numbers had dropped again, to 167. Since then, the population has been recovering.

The surviving Vancouver Island Marmots are spread between two metapopulations — clusters of colonies they travel between, which prevents inbreeding — in Strathcona Park and the Nanaimo Lakes region. There is also one isolated colony at Steamboat Mountain, near Kennedy Lake, and researchers say there may be marmots in the Mount Cain/Schoen Lake area, but there haven’t been any confirmed sightings in that area in several years. Mount Cain is part of the marmot’s historic range.

New births in the wild this spring were sporadic. Some colonies that were expected to produce several pups underperformed, while others exceeded expectations. Taylor said a small colony in the Nanaimo Lakes region with six adult marmots produced three litters of pups, which was “much better than we anticipated.”

The breeding programs at the Calgary and Toronto zoos and the recovery centre at Mount Washington produced 30 pups this year, said Taylor. They are all at the marmot recovery habitat on Mount Washington and being reared in a natural habitat there before being selected for release to populate colonies next spring.

Taylor said the foundation is studying the habitats of those colonies to determine if they have the “infrastructure” in the burrows to support the new additions.

He noted complex burrowing systems not only provide homes and birthing places for the marmot, but also quick places to escape from predators such as cougars and, occasionally, golden eagles. Marmots are in a constant state of maintaining and improving those burrows, building new passages, removing soil and replacing bedding materials.

He said some colonies are 10 to 15 years old and and it’s important to keep them growing through the captive breeding program. As colonies grow, marmots naturally disperse to other areas, join new mates and create new habitats.

“Healthy colonies are so important,” Taylor said, noting release protocols also look at the ages and sexes at each colony, ensuring a balance of males and females.

Taylor said marmots are very social animals, and a colony is stronger when its population can use “warning whistles” for any signs of danger. That allows most of the population to focus on feeding and rearing their young while others are keeping watch.

Released marmots have to adapt to cope with a harsh environment.

“You have to remember this isn’t sea level — this is an environment of rock where you can’t sink a shovel,” said Taylor. “It’s covered in snow seven months of the year, and below zero.”

In the late summer and fall, marmots work hard to put on weight for months of hibernation, ensuring they have enough nutrients to survive the winter and have pups. This brings an urgency as natural plant foods start to decline in nutrients. Marmots lose about a third of their body mass during hibernation.

Marmots sense when their fellow marmots are preparing for hibernation and their body temperatures start to drop for the deep sleep. That’s why it’s important when releasing young marmots that they are in sync with others in a colony.

“You can’t just throw them out into the landscape,” said Taylor.

Built in 2001 within marmot habitat, the Mount Washington Recovery Centre is the final stage of quarantine for captive-born animals prior to release to other sites in the wild, and allows the animals to be acclimated to elevation, weather and natural foods.

It also allows for the marmots ready for release to be held back until field conditions are best, an important option during the last few years, when many of the release sites were not accessible until well into July because of unusual snow patterns.

The Marmot Recovery Foundation operates on a budget of about $780,000 a year, most of which comes from donations. Taylor said the funding finances an extensive operation at the Mountain Washington Recovery Centre, feeding programs and the field crews who visit the remote colonies for marmot releases and colony checks, sometimes using helicopters.

The zoo programs at Calgary and Toronto provide their breeding programs and care for the marmots in captivity free of charge, but the value of their services “is in the millions,” said Taylor.

Other major partners include the provincial government, Mount Washington Resort, B.C. Parks and Mosaic Forest Management, which has set aside land where the marmots live and research is being done.

You can donate to the foundation, adopt a marmot and report marmot sights at marmots.org.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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