In 2003, researchers could only find 22 Vancouver Island marmots left in the wild.
“That’s about as endangered as it can possibly get,” said Adam Taylor, executive director of The Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation.
The foundation is a charity, founded in 1999 as a response to growing calls from many scientists and community members for more action to stop the creature’s extinction. The organization’s mission is to recover the wild population of Vancouver Island marmots.
A direct result of the foundation’s work, the number of Vancouver Island marmots has multiplied in recent years to slightly over 300, but there is still a long way to go for the species to be restored back to a healthy population. Despite this, Taylor said the marmots give him hope.
“I really think that there’s an opportunity to truly recover the Vancouver Island marmot to the point where it doesn’t need conservation breeding,” said Taylor, who has previously worked with other endangered species including turtles, snakes and slugs. “It’s decades of work to bring the species back, but [it’s] possible.”
Climate change and human activity put pressure on marmot habitat
As its name suggests, this species of marmot only lives on Vancouver Island. They have very specific living conditions, burrowing amidst steep avalanche chutes and mountains covered in snow in subalpine and alpine ecosystems. These avalanche shoots and steep mountainsides are scraped free of trees, and the open spaces help marmots detect predators and stay alive.
In 2000, researchers from the University of Victoria found that marmots have historically thrived in open environments because they help them spot predators.
While there isn’t one single specific factor causing the Vancouver Island marmot’s decline, the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation’s website says one of the main contributing factors is an increase in predation. This increase has been caused by human activity that introduced new prey species to the area — attracting more predators — and created roads (such as logging roads) that paved the way for predators to access marmot colonies, according to an article in the Capital Daily.
A 2005 report from the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks stated that marmots have not fared well in logged areas and cut blocks. Sometimes cut blocks resemble the marmots’ natural habitats, and the marmots will flock to the area, increasing the number of species in a small area. This increased amount of marmots in a small area makes them more vulnerable to local weather, diseases and predators.
Rising temperatures due to climate change are impacting the marmot’s habitat too. The temperature increase means much of the precipitation that used to fall as snow now falls as rain. Taylor said the excess rain is resulting in more tree growth in marmot territory as there is no snow or avalanches to drag trees away. The marmot’s subalpine home is in the early stages of turning into forest, he said.
“And unfortunately, marmots don’t survive in forests,” Taylor said.
He explained that a single cougar can wipe out an entire marmot colony, and more trees make it difficult for the marmots to detect predators such as cougars.
But the foundation’s support of these resilient rodents has led them on an upward trend. Their wild observation count for 2023 was 303 marmots. This was following a baby boom that year of 59 pups.
Foundation’s support leads to growing marmot population
A few of the main tasks that the recovery foundation focuses on is supporting the marmot colonies through supplementing food for them and marmot habitat restoration work. They also have a captive breeding program on Mount Washington, which helps support the captive-born animals prior to their release into the wild.
The foundation helps the marmots with their burrowing and modifies their habitat to suit their needs. This way, the marmots are able to put more energy into reproducing. Supplementing marmots with food works in the same way, and Taylor said he has seen the marmot population grow with this support.
Marmots tend to leave their colony around the age of two in order to find another one to join. The marmots who leave are called dispersers, Taylor said. During the early 2000’s, there were barely any other colonies for the dispersers to find since there were so few Vancouver Island marmots left in the wild. The few colonies that did exist had no dispersers. Those that did leave their colony would just get lost in the wild.
But Taylor said they are seeing more dispersers now.
“It’s the beginning of that process of really building up what we call [a] metapopulation structure that the species really relied on in the past in order to thrive on Vancouver Island,” Taylor said.
Vancouver Island marmot amongst more than 2,000 species at risk in B.C.
This kind of success is rare with species at risk, and Taylor hasn’t always had positive stories to tell. He said some species that may no longer be on Vancouver Island include western pond turtles, wolverines and the coastal vesper sparrow.
Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) is a federal legislation aimed at protecting wildlife species that are at risk of becoming extinct. Enacted in 2002, SARA provides a legal framework for the conservation of biological diversity in Canada.
But reporting by Ainslie Cruickshank in the Narwhal outlined how B.C. does not have a clear stand-alone endangered species law, and “SARA automatically applies only to federal land — about one per cent of B.C. — leaving the vast majority of species in the rest of the province lacking any meaningful protections.”
Between 1970 and 2018, The World Wide Fund for Nature found an average decline of 69 per cent in wildlife populations since 1970.
Taylor said although those stories are depressing, they are important educational tools.
“There’s not a lot of investment, unfortunately, in conservation,” he said.
He shared that he’s heard the same refrain often: “It’s a lost cause, we should just walk away.” But he doesn’t want to see that happen to another species on Vancouver Island.
Taylor said public support is what has been keeping the marmots alive.
“Seventy-five per cent of our funding comes from the general public. We could not do this work without that support. And the marmot would not be here today if it weren’t for that support.”
Taylor said Vancouver Island has a large environmental stewardship community that has stepped up to help the marmots, but there’s one specific reason that helps the Vancouver Island marmots pull in support.
“They are disgustingly cute,” Taylor said.
It’s true. These little guys boop noses as a form of bonding with their families and often hibernate in groups to keep warm and conserve body heat. In other words, they snuggle.
Taylor made it clear that he does not think cuteness should be a measure of whether or not a species gets support, but he’s certainly glad it has helped the marmots on their path to success.
“Raising money to help endangered slugs was a hard sell,” he said, adding that he didn’t think they booped noses.
This summer, the foundation plans on releasing up to 60 marmots into the wild. According to their annual report, the foundation may see a dip in the number of pups in 2024 because marmots typically breed only every other year. But the foundation will work to provide supplemental food for the mothers to help them focus on reproduction.
The foundation is also hiring wildlife technicians and a marmot keeper for the summer. The wildlife technicians will work out of Nanaimo and the marmot keeper position is based on Mount Washington.
Taylor said they are looking for people who are really passionate about hiking, physical activity and spending time in the wilderness. More information about the jobs can be found on the careers page of the foundation’s website. Applications are due Feb. 8, 2024.
On Groundhog Day (Friday Feb. 2), turn to the Marmot Recovery Foundation’s Facebook Page or YouTube Channel to check out the marmot Van Isle Violet’s prediction for whether we will have six more weeks of winter.
Madeline Dunnett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse