Vancouver Island’s marmot population bouncing back

Posted October 30, 2010 | Categories : 117,News,Rare Species,Reports |

Onslo and Haida, a pair of Vancouver Island marmots, are doing just fine, and so are many of their kin.

Onslo and Haida, a pair of Vancouver Island marmots, are doing just fine, and so are many of their kin.

The population of Island marmots living in the wild is now about 300 — 10 times the number from a dozen years ago, when they were Canada’s most endangered mammal.

Onslo and Haida were born in captivity in 2002 and were placed in the Haley Lake Ecological Reserve, 30 kilometres southwest of Nanaimo,

two years later.

In 2006, they bred in the wild and bore young, and in 2008 became the first captive-bred marmots to become grandparents in the wild. Thanks to the 2004 and 2005 releases of other captive-bred marmots, and the productivity of Onslo and Haida, the population at Haley Lake now exceeds 30, said Viki Jackson, executive director of the Marmot Recovery Foundation.

It’s a far happier story than would have been predicted when the brown, cat-sized animals teetered on the brink of extinction. Clearcut logging is blamed for luring the marmots out of their natural habitat and making them vulnerable to predators.

Now the foundation is in the happy position of reducing the number of marmots in captivity, now 130, and observing how well the colonies on 27 mountains can sustain themselves.

“The idea is to reduce the captive population as we’re building up the wild colonies,” Jackson said.

Enough captive animals will be held at four zoos and rehabilitation facilities to sustain the captive-bred population, Jackson added.

While things are looking up, it’s been a tough year for the marmots due to the late spring and lingering snowpack. Vancouver Island marmots normally hibernate in underground burrows from October until April, when they feed and mate.

But snow fell on many Island mountains into the late spring, making it difficult for marmots to get out of their burrows and nearly impossible to find nearby grass to eat.

“The reason why marmots live in the southwest bowls is [that] they’re the first areas that get the sun and warm up,” Jackson said.

It’s important that the marmots get food right away, because they’ve gone months without eating, she said.

“This year, marmots came out of hibernation and they weren’t able to fatten up right away, so they came out in rough shape.”

Half the 68 captive-bred marmots released last year didn’t survive the spring, Jackson said. That’s about twice the normal mortality rate. The good news is that all the captive-bred marmots that had been in the wild for at least one previous hibernation came through last spring unscathed.

It’s hoped that the 85 captive-bred marmots put into the wild through the summer will fare better than the last lot.

Some marmots at Mount Washington that couldn’t find food near their burrows came down the hill and were grazing on grass near a hairpin turn on the main access road, Jackson said.

“We were worried because the mountain opened up for a weekend at the end of June for skiing and the marmots were down at the store, on the road, running through the culvert — and we were afraid somebody was going to hit one.”

“Marmot crossing” signs were put up to warn motorists. The road-hopping marmots survived but the signs did not. Someone stole them.

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