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Vancouver Island Marmots: Back from the brink of extinction?

“How are the marmots doing” is a lingering question from last summer. Lots of locals report fewer sightings in Whistler-area mountains over the past few years, but the jury’s still out about what it all means. Have recent weather trends (or coyotes or disease) reduced the number of marmots? Or are the marmots just more secretive?

As any Grade 5 student at Myrtle Philip knows, our local species is the hoary marmot (Marmota caligata), one of the six species in North America. Hoary marmots have a huge range, from Alaska down to Idaho, and likely number in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of individuals. The 2001 Canada Census apparently won’t clarify exact numbers, but one thing’s clear: hoary marmots are not in any imminent danger of extinction.

Contrast that to Vancouver Island marmots (Marmota vancouverensis), of which only 36 still live in the wild. That’s fewer than the hoary marmot population in the Whistler area alone. Worse, those 36 individuals are scattered in small colonies on isolated mountainsides in the Insular Mountains of Vancouver Island. The small, fragmented population makes their continued existence precarious. Just a small change in the weather, or increased predation, or a particularly virulent virus, could virtually wipe out all remaining marmots.

Geographically confined species like the Vancouver Island marmots are called endemics. Other famous examples are the different species of finches found by Darwin to be restricted to individual islands (and which helped shape Darwin’s his theory of evolution). The reason endemics are especially susceptible to extinction is because they’ve put all their eggs in one geographic basket.

Their Vancouver Island home restricts the marmots’ choices of living quarters. Vancouver Island mountains are not very high (few are over 2000 metres) and the peaks tend to be very steep and mostly bare. Most marmots are found in the narrow band of rocky talus between these peaks and forested elevations below. Whistler has much more true alpine – think of the vast expanses of rocks, heather, and stunted trees above the Roundhouse and Rendezvous restaurants – and therefore more potential habitat.

Marmots on Vancouver Island are also challenged by a highly variable snowpack. Marmots rely on a deep snowpack to maintain a constant temperature for hibernation. Too shallow, and they have to use up valuable fat reserves to keep their temperature constant. Vancouver Island marmots bed down at elevations more similar to Olympic Station and, as you can see looking out the window, snow at that level is chancy.

It’s not yet clear whether Vancouver Island marmots can survive over the long term, but if they do it will be due to the efforts of dedicated people like Andrew Bryant, Chief Scientist for the Marmot Recovery Foundation. Andrew’s main hope centres on re-introducing captive-bred marmots to the wild and early results look positive that it might help stabilize and eventually increase populations.

Andrew Bryant, a terrific photographer, will be presenting slides showing the current situation of Vancouver Island marmots and reasons for optimism about their future. Come hear him on Thursday, November 29th, following the Whistler Naturalists AGM (details below). It’s a rivetting story, one we hope will never apply to our hoary marmots.

Website of the week: The endangered Vancouver marmot has its own website, complete with photos, sounds clips, and scientific data. Check out:

Upcoming Events

Thursday, November 29th – Whistler Naturalists AGM, 6:00-7:15 p.m. Wilhemsen Hall, Millennium Place. If you’d like to get more involved in the Whistler Naturalists, and especially if you’d like to organize one or more events, please come to our Annual General Meeting. For more details, call Bob Brett (932-8900).

Thursday, November 29th – The Whistler Naturalists present Andrew Bryant: “The Decline (and Rise?) of Vancouver Island Marmots, 8:00 p.m. Following the business part of their AGM, the Whistler Naturalists present featured speaker Andrew Bryant, Chief Scientist for the Marmot Recovery Foundation. Refreshments served before and after the show. Adults $7, children free. Admission for adults is free with the purchase of a 2002 Whistler Naturalists membership ($15).

Written by: Bob Brett


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