Pioneer marmot in captive breeding program dies at 14

A Canadian pioneer — born on Vancouver Island with stops in Langley, Toronto and Calgary —has died.

Harriet, a 14-year-old Vancouver Island marmot, died at the Calgary Zoo on Christmas Eve. Harriet was the oldest marmot in captivity and the last of the first group brought in from the wild to be part of a captive breeding program to ensure the survival of her species.

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“She was one of our founder marmots,” said Adam Taylor, executive director of the Marmot Recovery Foundation, on Wednesday. “Harriet was one of the first marmots taken from the wild here on Vancouver Island for a captive breeding program.”

Harriet was at the Calgary and Toronto zoos and briefly at the Mountain View Conservation Centre in Langley.

She was captured as a pup, one of 55 animals in a captive breeding program that continues.

Closely related to the yellow-tan hoary marmot found on the mainland, the Vancouver Island marmot is bigger and mostly dark brown with a grey or white splash on the nose.

The animal raised concerns among wildlife biologists in the late 1990s because of shrinking numbers. Taylor said that by 1997 the wild population of marmots was estimated at only about 30 — bad news when population genetics demand at least 25 breeders to maintain a healthy gene pool.

In an effort to save them from extinction, young Vancouver Island marmots were trapped and transported to zoos. It was hoped they would breed offspring to release into the wild.

Now numbering 54, those captive breeders have weaned 566 pups, 477 of which have been released into the wild.

Captive-bred animals are still considered to be necessary to build up numbers in the wild. Ideally, a healthy population would be able to maintain numbers in the face of predation or conditions such as drought.

Taylor said the Vancouver Island marmot has one thing going for it in terms of species survival: Its habitat is high mountain alpine meadow, which draws little attention from people.

“There is just not a lot of demand from people to go into those areas and do much of anything.”

There is, however, the prospect of climate change and rising temperatures.

Normally, marmot meadow habitat is kept clear of trees by snow and avalanches. But it appears trees are beginning to sprout in marmot country.

“That’s a problem for marmots because they need the tree-free environments to keep an eye out for predators,” Taylor said.

He said consideration is being given to clearing out trees to maintain their meadows.

“I would like to say we wouldn’t have to, but if I was a betting man, I would wager we will have to initiate more of this type of management.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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