Yellow-bellied marmots hitchhiking rides to Vancouver Island in vehicle engine compartments have researchers concerned about the health of endangered marmots that are native to the Island.
The Vancouver Island marmot is considered one of the world’s rarest mammals with only 196 counted last year in alpine regions of the mid-Island. In 2003, their numbers were about 30 as populations teetered on the brink of extinction.
A report June 21 of a marmot emerging from a truck engine compartment at a downtown Victoria construction site and eluding animal control officers has the Marmot Recovery Foundation — a group leading the Vancouver Island marmot’s fledgling recovery — “extremely concerned” about the spread of parasites and diseases that could decimate the population.
Executive director Adam Taylor said yellow-bellied marmots have healthy numbers in Washington, Alberta and mainland British Columbia, including colonies recently established in Metro Vancouver.
A lone yellow-bellied marmot named Roger has lived among landscaped rocks on the north side of the Empress Hotel since 2008 and was thought to have hitchhiked a ride in a recreational vehicle from Alberta. The marmot involved in the more recent incident is believed to be a different animal.
Ian Fraser, manager of Victoria Control Services, said that marmot went into the engine compartment of a truck at the construction site and the vehicle left to an unknown location.
There have been previous sightings. Fraser captured a yellow-bellied marmot in Vic West 10 years ago that had stowed away in the engine compartment of a woman’s car at Tsawwassen ferry terminal.
It was captured and returned to the wild on the mainland.
Officials believe several other marmots have caught rides to the Island over the years with drivers unaware of the secret passengers.
For Taylor, those marmots could carry diseases and parasites against which the Vancouver Island marmot has no immunity.
He is urging people to report marmots so they can be live-trapped and sent back to the mainland.
“All it takes is for someone to step in some feces that has [parasite] eggs and then goes hiking into the habitat of the Island marmots,” Taylor said. “The [Island] marmot has no defence against it. It could decimate a local population. The threat is extraordinary. The Island marmots are very vulnerable to disease.”
He’s urging hikers to venture into the backcountry with clean boots and poles and freshly laundered clothing as a precaution.
Any increase in yellow-bellied marmots could also attract more predators to the Island marmot populations, including golden eagles.
Meanwhile, Vancouver Island marmot colonies appear to have weathered the winter, and the animals are starting to give birth to pups that could strengthen their numbers.
Taylor said alpine colonies in Strathcona Park and the Nanaimo Lakes areas are emerging from hibernation with a healthy survival rate and there are early signs some females have already given birth.
Despite pandemic restrictions, Taylor said research crews with the foundation have been able to make several field trips for observations over the past three weeks.
Researchers are getting close to some colonies and using long-range scopes on others because of access issues and avalanche hazards.
Peak observation times will be in early July, when marmots and their pups emerge from burrows, said Taylor.
“Every year, a few marmots don’t make it through the winter, but this year so far, the survival rate looks pretty high,” Taylor said. “That’s the first benchmark of the year for us. The next is reproduction, and so far we are keeping our fingers crossed.”
He said the foundation’s staff veterinarian observed one female marmot who has given birth the past three consecutive seasons and was seen lactating, a sign she has had pups.
“But whether that’s one or six, we don’t know. It is a positive sign anyway. That’s the best news we’ve had so far.”
Taylor said female marmots usually give birth in three-year cycles.
The Island’s unique marmot species, considered critically endangered, hit a low point of fewer than 30 animals in 2003. But massive recovery efforts led by a breeding program on Mount Washington and habitat protections have helped to rebuild populations on the Island’s alpine meadows and slopes.
Nearly 200 animals in 20 colonies were observed last 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. In 2014, 266 animals were counted. Over the past three years, populations have been recovering.
“We’re always at the whims of what the wild chooses to do,” said Taylor. “Drought, weather, predators … each year is different.”
Taylor noted that targeted supplemental feeding has helped the marmot population to breed more often.
He said the foundation’s recovery centre on Mount Washington is scheduled to release 19 marmots into the wild.
Two or three will be released into the Mount Washington area colonies starting today and others will follow in Strathcona Park and the Nanaimo Lakes region. Taylor said research crews assess certain colonies and usually base decisions on the habitats with extra care not to disrupt marmot pairs.
The foundation, which has nine staff and relies on researchers and supports from the province as well as expertise from Toronto and Calgary zoos that keep and study marmots, wants to be extra cautious with the animals during the pandemic.
When the marmots are ready, they are loaded into wooden boxes and taken by backpack or helicopter to their new homes.
Most of the colonies are in central Vancouver Island, and marmots often travel between them. There is also an isolated colony at Steamboat Mountain in the Alberni-Clayoquot region.
The foundation said there could also be a marmot colony in the Schoen Lake area on the North Island, but there has not been a confirmed sighting in that area for more than five years.
Taylor said the marmot population might be resettling inside Strathcona Park at Sunrise Lake north of Mount Albert Edward near the head of the Oyster River. That area was last populated about three years ago, but it was thought the population had died out.
This year, researchers have spotted new holes and tracks in the snow. “That’s exciting news for us,” said Taylor.
The foundation chronicles marmot activity on its blog, often assigning them names such as The Dude, who seems to wander between colonies, as well as Arwen and Edgar. Hikers regularly contribute photos and other information to help the foundation discover habits, mating partners and territories.
The animals are identified by small metal ear tags and sometimes distinguishing features, but fur markings are difficult because the marmots molt their fur.
Anyone who sees a marmot while hiking on Vancouver Island is asked to send photos to the foundation to help guide recovery efforts.
Fill out the form at https://marmots.org/observer-program, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-390-0006 or 1-877-462-7668.