Baby boom boosts hopes for endangered Island marmots

The birth of six Vancouver Island marmots to one mother is highlighting the 20-year quest to save one of the rarest mammals in the world.

A marmot named Molly gave birth to the six pups — the Marmot Recovery Foundation in Nanaimo gives names to all the marmots they keep track of — and it bodes well for a population where the marmots typically welcome three to four pups in a litter every other year.

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Molly is an offspring of one to the original marmots released to the wild nine years ago. Many of the population today can be traced to breeding programs led by the Calgary and Toronto zoos.

She is officially known as Marmota vancouverensis, recognized as endangered under the federal Species At Risk Act and a Priority 1 species under the B.C. Conservation Framework.

A survey in 2003 found fewer than 30 wild marmots living in a handful of colonies.

“It was a really scary time,” said Adam Taylor, executive director of the Marmot Recovery Foundation. “The species was at the brink of extinction, possibly just a year away.”

Recovery efforts over the years have been led by a partnership that includes the Marmot Recovery Foundation, British Columbia government, Calgary and Toronto zoos, plus landowners TimberWest, Island Timberlands and Mount Washington Alpine Resort.

Because of their efforts, the population stands at between 150 and 200 today.

The success of the recovery efforts has made the Vancouver Island marmot an inspiration for similar conservation efforts around the world. “Our success has seen our story referenced nationally and internationally,” said Taylor. “It’s really important to have successful examples to inspire similar efforts for other endangered species.”

Part of the success is due in no small part to Vancouver Islanders who have figuratively adopted the small mammal, about the size of a house cat, as their own, with donations to support recovery efforts.

The marmots are living at two locations, around Mount Washington in Strathcona Provincial Park and Nanaimo Lakes, in the north of the Lake Cowichan watershed area.

TimberWest and Islands Timberlands, which own private forests lands west of Nanaimo, have taken key positions to support conservation, with significant annual financial contributions for research and management as well as postponed logging in identified marmot habitats.

The Mount Washington Alpine Resort has donated land for a captive breeding centre and winter monitoring of the mammals, who hibernate seven months of the year.

“What’s neat is to have something that is unique to the Island,” said Taylor. “If you ever have the luck to happen upon one during a hike, you would have just seen one of about 150 known on the planet. It’s a special occasion, as it is still one of the rarest mammals in the world.”

parrais@timescolonist.com

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