Biologists trying to save the endangered Vancouver Island Marmot are dealing with a heartbreaking reality this week.
A huge die-off of the rare marmot over the winter has claimed at least 36 of the animals that conservation efforts have been working hard to bring back from near extinction. Whether it was last year’s drought or a higher than usual loss to predators isn’t known but biologists are hitting the slopes of Mount Washington to pinpoint how many animals are left and what condition they’re in.
Packing up to hit the alpine slopes that the Vancouver Island marmot calls home, biologist Cheney Jackson isn’t sure what she’s going to find up there, after a heartbreaking number of marmots haven’t woken from winter hibernation.
“It was a bit of a shock this year. It’s awful,” says Cheney Jackson of the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation. “You feel a sense of responsibility for these animals. They’re fighting out there for their own survival and the survival of their species.”
The hard truth was only confirmed in the last few days, when the several hundred marmots being tracked in colonies around the Island should have all woken from winter.
“So it wasn’t until June that the transmitters were sending us signals that they were still cold, that we definitely confirmed these were likely mortalities,” says Jackson.
Because the species is endangered and was down to just 30 animals in the wild in 2003, each one that is released or trapped from the wild is outfitted with a transmitter that pings when their body temperatures warm.
“We can follow their movements and also we can tell when they’re in hibernation. During the summer it can also tell us if there’s a mortality as well,” says Dr. Malcolm McAdie, with the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation.
This year 36 marmot transmitter haven’t warmed, telling biologists they are no longer alive. The cause could be a huge number of predator kills along with last summer’s drought, reducing winter fat supplies.
“You can’t help but always worry about how they’re doing and everything so I think every year when you have them make that appearance abut the ground you know that they have another year,” says Dr. McAdie.
Biologists are now trying to get to the bottom of what’s killed off the 36 marmots before releasing another handful into the wild next week.
“And hopefully that was bad luck,” says Jackson. “You know hopefully this combination of factors that caused this mortality won’t be present next year. ”
Crossing heir fingers a little too, that this is merely a setback and not a sign of things to come.