A tenacious Vancouver Island marmot’s long-distance quest for love may help explain how the endangered animals are bouncing back from near extinction.
Adam Taylor, executive director of the Marmot Recovery Foundation in Nanaimo, B.C., said Camas the marmot wandered for 35 kilometres over mountains and down valleys looking for a mate.
“There are not many marmots. It’s a pretty small community. So, finding a partner can be a challenge. He’s really kind of gone the whole nine yards to track somebody down,” said Taylor.
Camas was released by their program last year, but they lost track of him over the winter. When he reappeared last spring he wandered from marmot colony to colony.
“We actually got a phone call from a farmer in a little town called Barrington to say, ‘I’ve got a marmot in my backyard,’” Taylor said, confirming it was Camas.
“He is a survivor, he has undertaken this incredible journey, you know 35 kilometres up and down literal mountains, looking for the right partners,” said Taylor.
The Vancouver Island marmot is one of Canada’s most endangered species. With beaver-like bucked teeth, fluffy chocolate brown fur and tail and white patches on their nose, forehead and chest, the rodents have five distinct whistles or trills they use, more than any other marmot species.
In 2003, there were fewer than 30 remaining in the wild. But a baby boom this year of 59 pups has brought their population up to 306 animals, thanks to the recovery program and support in the wild.
2022 was a terrible year for the marmots with only four pups born, Taylor said.
Marmots live at about 1,000 meters in elevation, and last winter there was a large snow pack, with little food available for the animals when they emerged from hibernation, he said.
The weather last spring was more favourable in the alpine, with a typical snowpack, helping marmots to find food after as they emerged from hibernation and began to breed, said Taylor.
Thanks to the new pups, there’s been a 50 per cent increase in the total population since the end of last year, when there were 204 marmots. Taylor called it a “huge jump.”
Taylor said they’ve also been giving out supplemental food, biscuits made of pressed leaves, meant for the females when they emerge from hibernation.
“The goal is just to provide those females with a really quick boost of energy, so, they start putting on body weight right away and hopefully have more babies.”
The foundation started in 1998 by bringing wild marmots into captivity for a breeding program. They have facilities on Mount Washington in central Vancouver Island, and breeding programs at the Calgary and Toronto zoos.
The program has released 630 marmots into the wild and each goes out with a transmitter to tell researchers if they are still alive or in hibernation.
Many factors contribute to the population struggle for the animals, including habitat loss, climate change, and predators such as cougars and wolves.
The marmots live in mountain meadows, and Taylor said they have found that when a colony moves into a forest cut block the animals thrive until the trees begin to regrow, leaving them to search for another home.
He said aerial photos taken of the area in the 1950s and the 1970s indicate that many historic marmot burrows are now overgrown with trees.
“As there’s less snow energy, more young trees began to grow in the marmot colony, and the colonies are essentially beginning to shrink,” said Taylor.
Despite being decades into the recovery operation, Taylor said there’s still a fair amount of work to do.
“We’re kind of in a bit of a race. So, the race right now is how quickly we can recover the marmot population versus how quickly climate change is impacting their habitat.”
He said they’ll probably always need to do some habitat restoration work.
“I think that that’s simply a reality,” said Taylor.
As for Camas, Taylor said they’ve followed him to another colony where he appears to be settling down with a few local marmots now.
“I hope he found somebody special, we will see what the spring holds. We are still trying to improve our marmot matchmaking skills,” Taylor said.
“We’re kind of crossing our fingers and hoping that we have pups from him next year.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 24, 2023.