Bringing the endangered Vancouver Island marmot back from the brink

One of the rarest mammals in the world was almost wiped out two decades ago, sparking an elaborate and costly recovery program that has boosted numbers and offers hope for other at-risk species

The best way to trap a Vancouver Island marmot is with peanut butter — and not the healthy kind. Marmots use beaver-like incisors to chow down on an alpine meadow buffet of more than 40 species of grasses, herbs and wildflowers. The starfish leaves of alpine lupins are a favourite dish. But place a teaspoon of peanut butter, preferably containing sugar and hydrogenated fats, near a marmot that is fattening up after six or seven months of hibernation and it will quickly eschew the salad bar.

For wildlife veterinarian Malcolm McAdie, feeding dozens of captive marmots at the Tony Barrett Mount Washington Marmot Recovery Centre, where marmots are bred and released into the wild, is a daily preoccupation. One entire room at the centre is devoted to food preparation. The marmot youngsters, McAdie jokes, are “eating us out of house and home.”

The Vancouver Island marmot, Canada’s most endangered mammal, is only found in the wild on Vancouver Island mountains. The heaviest member of the squirrel family, marmots are about the size of a large house cat, have dainty ears like their chipmunk cousins and sport chocolate-brown fur with splashes of cream. Like other marmot species, Vancouver Island marmots are highly social; they live in colonies, rub noses in greeting and play fight like boxers.

Vancouver Island marmot

The Vancouver Island marmot is about the size of a large house cat and is Canada’s most endangered mammal. Photo: Ryan Tidman

Marmota vancouverensis were so plentiful a century ago that the Victoria Times newspaper described “swarms” at the head of Nitinat Valley and a “brace” of marmots hunted in the Beaufort Range. But by 2003 — following clearcut logging, road building and other human disturbances, giving predators like cougars easy access to marmot colonies — only 27 Vancouver Island marmots were left in Canada’s wild.

Following intensive recovery efforts, the wild population has increased eight-fold, to just over 200 animals. Today, Vancouver Island marmots are found on more than 20 mountain sites compared to five sites in 2003, one with a solitary marmot. Yet they remain one of the rarest mammals in the world.

As the former executive director of a local land trust, Adam Taylor had largely focused on trying to save snake, slug and bat species from extinction by protecting their vanishing habitat. When Taylor became the executive director of the Marmot Recovery Foundation in 2015, he was motivated, in part, by the opportunity to use the charismatic marmots as a poster child for raising awareness about efforts to save all endangered species.

“It feels like we have a real shot,” Taylor says, “to take a species that is critically endangered, clearly at the absolute brink of extinction, and actually restore it to a reasonably healthy population.”

Adam Taylor

Adam Taylor, executive director of the Marmot Recovery Foundation, says it’s easy to feel like it’s hopeless to recover endangered species. Photo: Cheyney Jackson

In May 2019, scientists around the world warned of a global biodiversity crisis, saying nature is declining at rates unprecedented in human history. Close to one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, according to a comprehensive United Nations report, which called for transformational changes to protect species and ecosystems.

“We are in a period where it’s going to be pretty grim. We are going to lose species,” Taylor says. “And it is easy to believe that it’s hopeless, that we simply can’t recover these species and that there’s no point in even trying. And I think it’s important that we have these success stories we can point to — that both uplift us within the conservation community and that we can use as exemplars to talk about the value of conservation programs, that they do really have the potential for success, that they’re not doomed to failure.”

Vancouver Island marmot

By 2003, there were just 27 Vancouver Island marmots left in Canada’s wild. Now the wild population has increased eight-fold to just over 200 animals. Photo: Ryan Tidman

British Columbia, which markets itself as “super, natural,” is home to more than 2,000 species at risk of extinction, more than any other province or territory in Canada. Yet, unlike most provinces, B.C. does not have a standalone law to protect endangered species. Such a law might have reversed the fortunes of the Vancouver Island marmot much earlier by protecting its critical habitat before the species was almost wiped out, in addition to providing earlier resources for recovery efforts.

Recovering a species on the brink of extinction is not easy, and it’s not cheap either. From hatching northern spotted owls in a laboratory as forest sounds play in the background to sedating pregnant caribou and flying them in helicopters to a breeding pen high in the Misinchinka mountains, substantial amounts of money are going toward complex efforts to recover endangered species in British Columbia and around the world.

Vancouver Island marmots are bred in captivity, where they are acclimatized to predators by rolling taxidermic cougars and wolves past their enclosures to test their response. They are given names like The Dude and P-Man, or litters are named by theme: one year it was Gord, Rob, Paul and Johnny, after members of the band the Tragically Hip. The marmots undergo surgery to implant radio transmitters in their abdomens, allowing each one to be tracked. Their heartbeats are monitored and their teeth are checked. And then comes the day when they are released into the wild.

On a cool rainy morning in late June, I meet Taylor and recovery team member Quinn Andrews in a deserted ski hill parking lot on Mount Washington, on central Vancouver Island, to witness the release of three young marmots — Dora, George and Jabber — onto a ski hill. Taylor gives me hand sanitizer and a spray bottle of disinfectant for the soles of my hiking boots, which I have already cleaned, along with my clothes, as instructed.

Boot disinfectant has always been required for anyone associated with the recovery team who is in the marmot colonies to avoid inadvertently bringing in invasive species seeds and to protect the marmots from any potential unknown disease. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, McAdie and other marmot handlers wore disposable gloves and face masks in the recovery centre, a two-storey wood and concrete building with adjoining indoor and outdoor marmot pens, staff sleeping quarters, quarantine rooms and a surgery room. But the pandemic has heightened safety precautions — especially since hamsters, a distant relative of the marmot, have tested positive for the disease — and now staff wear face masks in close proximity to wild marmots as well.

Quinn Andrews Vancouver Island marmot

Quinn Andrews, a member of the field crew for the Marmot Recovery Foundation, hoists a caged marmot through a meadow on Mount Washington. Photo: Ryan Tidman

“The Vancouver Island marmot has gone through an extraordinary genetic bottleneck,” Taylor says, referring to a dramatic reduction in population numbers that threatens genetic diversity and the long-term survival of a species. “When that happens, it does leave a species vulnerable to disease … We don’t know that there’s any risk to marmots, but it’s not a chance we want to take.”

Our destination, a half-hour hike up a steep dirt road, is a grassy pasture sandwiched between the “more difficult” Invitation and Fantastic ski runs. The slope provides just the sort of habitat that marmots need  — a subalpine meadow with plenty of opportunities to excavate burrows and escape tunnels in the uneven terrain and rocks on which they can lounge, keeping careful watch for predators.

Taylor points to a plywood box nestled into the mountainside, which is about to become temporary accommodations for the yearlings, who are among 14 marmots released from captivity in the summer of 2020. Under the box, which will be removed in a few days, is a tunnel quarried by wild marmots. “The goal is to ease the marmots into their sudden exposure into life in the wild,” Taylor says. “They come out, and they find a burrow that is not currently being used by other marmots.”

McAdie, arriving by truck with two other team members and the marmots, carries a plastic bag of shavings and hay, taken from the marmots’ enclosures, downhill to the box. The vet dips nutrition biscuits — the same Marzuri Leaf-Eaters fed to primates in zoos — into a jar of peanut butter, placing them around and on top of the hutch and on a nearby tree stump. Recovery team members hurriedly pick wild lupins, sparkling with beads of rain and dew, to add to the welcome basket in the new abode.

Moving slowly, the vet and two other team members hoist big cages onto their backs. Seen from a distance, masked and wearing dark clothing, moving carefully down the slope in the misty rain, they could be mistaken for cattle rustlers about to pull off a heist. Every few seconds, one of the marmots pierces the silence with a loud whistle. The characteristic call, which earns the marmot its nickname “whistle pig,” indicates Dora, George and Jabber are not entirely happy with the situation.

Vancouver Island marmot

Malcolm McAdie, Greg Mevlin and Quinn Andrews prepare to release two Vancouver Island marmots at Mount Washington. Photo: Ryan Tidman

One by one, the cages are joined to a removable plywood tunnel that connects to the hutch. If a marmot won’t leave its cage, someone tickles its feet. “They don’t like that very much,” Taylor says. “But some of them are really stubborn and they won’t go in even with the feet tickling. So, you have to take the ultimate irritation measure, which is to blow on their bums … that always seems to convince them.”

But today it’s just some foot tickling for Dora, and some foot tickling and a little cage jiggling for George and Jabber. Dora, named after Dora the Explorer from the children’s animated television series, is released first because males are more likely to block the entrance for others. The staff retreat 30 or 40 metres. McAdie checks his phone. After 15 minutes, allowing the animals time to absorb the strange smell of their new box and the familiar scent of old bedding, the plywood door is unscrewed and we wait for the trio to emerge into the brightening day.

Sometimes it only takes a minute or two for the first nose to poke out. But Dora, George and Jabber are not the Three Marmoteers, it turns out. It also doesn’t seem that Dora will live up to the reputation of her namesake. “This might be a record,” McAdie says after almost an hour. He walks back up to the box to check on his charges, spotting them huddled at the back.

Finally, the telltale white ring that encircles a Vancouver Island marmot nose shimmers at the door. Then a chin pokes out, and immediately retreats. Over and over, the nose pops out and pulls back, like a swimmer slowly dipping into cold water. And then a head emerges, followed, a few seconds later, by two front paws. Finally, the marmot dashes out to a biscuit dipped in peanut butter. Is it Dora? George? Jabber? We’re too far away to tell. A second marmot begins a jack-in-the-box routine at the hutch door, while the first one continues its peanut butter surveillance mission, seemingly unaffected by the morning trip up the mountain.

Vancouver Island marmot

The Marmot Recovery Foundation raises marmots in captivity and then releases them into the wild. Photo: Ryan Tidman

Vancouver Island marmot

Vancouver Island marmots are the heaviest member of the squirrel family and sport chocolate-brown fur with splashes of cream. They live in colonies, rub noses in greeting and play fight like boxers. Photo: Ryan Tidman

The three youngsters have come from the Mount Washington marmot recovery centre, a 12-minute drive down the bumpy road. Yet they have travelled a great distance to get this far. Dora and George were born in the spring of 2019 at the Toronto Zoo, which, along with the Calgary Zoo, breeds marmots for the recovery program. The duo was among nine marmots, all slated for release this spring, who were flown last fall to Vancouver. McAdie met them at the airport and brought them to Vancouver Island by truck and ferry so they could acclimatize at the Mount Washington facility in time for hibernation.

Jabber had a much shorter distance to travel; he was trapped by the recovery team in a clearcut last year and transported to the recovery centre by helicopter. Left in the cutblock, Taylor says Jabber and his future offspring would almost certainly have been picked off by cougars, which use the cover of growing trees to more easily stake out the marmots.

Historically, predation was not an issue for Vancouver Island marmots. But high-elevation logging and road building have fragmented habitat around marmot colonies in alpine meadows, isolating populations. “It’s not like anyone went in and logged a marmot colony,” Taylor says. “They’re tree-free by nature … But we did make a lot of disturbances around these colonies. So you have these little pockets of habitat.”

Marmots who disperse, as the species does naturally, can’t find their way to another colony through the disturbances. They end up in odd places. The recovery team once trapped a marmot that had taken up residence in a woodshed in Qualicum Beach. In 2013, they pulled a marmot named Morgan out of downtown Nanaimo. They were even called in 2015 to get a marmot that had been found wandering on the beach by the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.

Vancouver Island marmot

The Marmot Recovery Foundation is working to establish marmot colonies in close proximity to provide stepping stones for the population to rebound. Photo: Ryan Tidman

Marmots on the move like to burrow in clearcuts, which mimic their treeless alpine and subalpine slopes but make them a far easier target for predators when trees start to grow back and provide cover. When you factor in the small dam in Strathcona Park next to Mount Washington, which created a reservoir in the middle of the park and severed marmot networks, and add climate change, which allows trees to grow at high elevations, the end result is less habitat for marmots and fewer avenues for dispersal.

“At some point in time, we started building all sorts of roads on Vancouver Island,” Taylor says. Some support logging operations, but many are for residential development and mining, he notes. “Historically, it would have been a pretty high energy cost for predators to get into marmot habitat and a pretty low return. Marmots were never a primary food source for wolves or cougars.”

The recovery team hopes that re-establishing enough marmot colonies close to each other will provide stepping stones for natural dispersal. There are now at least 12 colonies throughout the 700 square kilometre Nanaimo Lakes region. The exception to the stepping stone approach is a colony the team established on Steamboat Mountain, releasing captive-bred marmots with the opposite approach. “If everything goes south, if there’s a disease that’s introduced that wipes out the population in the Nanaimo Lakes region, we need to have a colony that’s geographically and reproductively isolated,” Taylor says.

“Historically, it would have been a pretty high energy cost for predators to get into marmot habitat and a pretty low return. Marmots were never a primary food source for wolves or cougars.”

The journey for marmota vancouverensis, as a species, has been much longer and more difficult. And it’s come with a hefty price tag.

The recovery foundation’s annual budget is between $750,000 and $800,000, depending on the year. In the past 10 years alone, the foundation has spent almost $8 million on marmot recovery efforts. Extrapolating, the price tag to save Vancouver Island marmots since the foundation was created in 1998 is somewhere in the order of $15 million. And that doesn’t include money to breed and raise marmots in zoos and fly them to B.C.

Each year, the B.C. government matches the funding contributed to the recovery foundation by two forestry companies that log near marmot colonies — Island Timberlands and TimberWest. This year, each of the three parties will contribute $70,000. The rest of the foundation’s budget comes from foundations and individual donors — some donors join the Adopt-a-Marmot Club — while Mount Washington Alpine Resort donates land for recovery efforts.

Money is far from the only investment in the marmot’s recovery and well-being. A stud book keeps track of lineage, aiming to ensure genetic diversity. Throughout the year, staff and vets from the zoos and recovery foundation meet with Vancouver Island University biology professor Jamie Gorrell, who sequences marmot DNA and advises which male marmot should be paired with which female.

Zoo staff weigh in with observations about individuals that might impede the ideal genetic match. “We sort out some of the practicalities of that,” Taylor explains. One female marmot named Rizzo, for instance, only likes a male named Oban. “It’s great that she’s got the genetics, but she’s literally going to eat her partner unless it’s Oban. Can we mate her with Oban again or are we starting to worry about over-representation?”

Hibernating Vancouver Island marmot

Malcolm McAdie oversees captive breeding and marmot care at the Mount Washington marmot recovery centre. Here he holds a hibernating Vancouver Island. Photo: Ryan Tidman

There are also concerns about how captive-bred marmots will adapt to an environment with predators. To see if they recognize predators and take appropriate action — whistling an alarm to other marmots and hiding in burrows — the Calgary Zoo wheels taxidermic cougar, wolf, marmot and domestic goat mounts past marmot cages, monitoring a video camera for the animals’ reactions. Mounts are pulled along a track in front of the marmot enclosures at the zoo’s off-site breeding facility, south of Calgary.

“We set it up so they’re on top of their hay bales, so they’re up high and they can see, and they’re eating, so they’re relaxed, so that we know they’re in a good behavioural state,” says Natasha Lloyd, conservation research manager for the Calgary Zoo, which has sent a total of 131 marmot pups to Vancouver Island for release. “And then we bring this taxidermied stimulus across to them, and we leave it for one minute and pull it out.” The marmots did indeed recognize the predators and act appropriately, she says.

Over the past few years, the zoo has repeated the study, expanding it to include a golden eagle, a great horned owl, a magpie and a goose. Lloyd said the results are still being analyzed, but broad trends show captive marmots are still able to distinguish predators from non-predators and take immediate action to protect themselves.

Working together, the zoo and the recovery foundation have also determined that captive-bred marmots stand a much higher chance of surviving when they are released onto Mount Washington for a year before they are moved to more remote colonies such as those in the Nanaimo Lakes area. They call it the “stepping stone” approach.

“We’ve found that year of learning really helps,” Lloyd says. “Because it’s a ski hill and there’s human presence around, we believe that the predation levels are lower, but there are still some predators around. So it gives the marmots a bit of an easier time to learn how to discern predators, how to avoid predators. And because marmots are such a social species, the other marmots out there, the wild marmots, give alarm calls and help them understand what to do.”

Mount Washington also has plenty of marmot burrows and hibernacula, giving newly released marmots more time to learn how to excavate. “If they’re yearlings or younger individuals, they can be adopted into a wild burrow and hibernate together, which is a really great learning experience for them too,” Lloyd says.

A record 17 pups were born at the Calgary Zoo this year, while eight were born at the Toronto Zoo. And 12 pups were born this spring in four litters at the Mount Washington facility.

Surgeries to implant radio transmitters in captive marmots are carried out at the recovery centre in June, with marmots given two weeks to recover before being released. On a mid-June morning, McAdie prepares to implant a transmitter into a young marmot named Diego — Dora’s brother from the same Toronto Zoo litter.

Diego lies on his back on a blue surgical sheet in the yellow surgery room at the recovery centre. His front paws stick up in the air, a plastic mask around his nose to supply a carefully controlled concentration of anesthetic. McAdie listens to Diego’s heartbeat and lungs with a stethoscope, measures his testicles and inserts a rectal thermometer to provide a digital readout of the marmot’s temperature throughout the surgery. He lifts Diego’s floppy head and peers into his mouth. “That’s a nice-looking marmot,” he says. “Incisors are intact.”

Vancouver Island marmot

Diego has a radio transmitter implanted in his abdomen at the recovery centre in June. Photo: Marmot Recovery Foundation

The vet holds an EKG sensor between Diego’s paws to check for any potential heart ailments and wraps a pulse oximeter sensor around the marmot’s left hind leg to check his oxygen saturation and heartbeat. He takes a blood sample from Diego’s other back paw, wiping on disinfectant first, and wraps a doppler sensor around that paw to get an audio signal from his heartbeat for another pulse reading during the procedure.

Then he shaves the middle of Diego’s abdomen, a patch smaller than a credit card. His assistant, Jordyn Alger, vacuums up the stray fur. McAdie swabs red surgical soap on the patch, the first of at least three scrubs.

A surgical kit is unwrapped to reveal two sterile blue drapes containing surgical instruments, including a scalpel. McAdie disinfects his hands anew, right up to his elbows. Alger keeps watch over Diego’s vitals, pulling on one of his front paws to stimulate respiration.

The vet unfolds a transparent drape, cutting a hole in the middle and slips the drape over Diego.

“OK, making the incision,” he says, bending over the patch. He inserts the transmitter and sews Diego up, finishing with a layer of tissue adhesive, the surgical equivalent of crazy glue. The marmot will be eating again by the next day, the vet predicts.

McAdie releases Diego two weeks later, on Gemini Mountain in the Haley Lake Ecological Reserve, along with another marmot born at the Toronto Zoo, named for the basketball player Kawhi Leonard.

Like his sister Dora, Diego will be monitored all summer by staff who travel to marmot colonies with hand-held antennae, switching the frequency to check on different marmots. The transmitters respond to temperature, sending pulses that tell recovery team staff whether a marmot is alive, dead or hibernating.

Mike Lester Vancouver Island marmot

Mike Lester uses an antenna at Mount Arrowsmith to check on the marmots in the area. The pulse rate of the transmitter indicates the body temperature of the marmot. Photo: Ryan Tidman

The vet has become somewhat of a Sherlock Holmes when it comes to marmot mortalities, which are low on Mount Washington, where marmots hibernate in deep snow below snowboarders and downhill skiers. Dora, George and Jabber have an 80 per cent chance of surviving their first year in the wild, he says.

Arriving at the scene of a death, McAdie looks for signs of a struggle, scat, fur, bones and the radio transmitter, which indicate how the marmot was consumed. Cougars, which have been responsible for 85 per cent of the marmot deaths in the past decade, make a kill and then drag the marmot to a more secluded area with vegetation. The cougar won’t eat the marmot right away.

“They’ll prepare it,” McAdie says. “They use their incisors and barber the hair off.” Leaving a ring of marmot hair, cougars will also remove the gastrointestinal tract and larger bones like parts of the skull before eating the meat. Cougars tend to kill multiple marmots in short order, which is why Jabber was airlifted to safety from a clear cut, along with a female and her four kits.

Wolves, on the other hand, will consume the entire marmot on the spot. They’ll also often leave a calling card of stool in the vicinity and will sometimes leave tooth marks in the resin coating the transmitter. Bears, which only rarely kill Vancouver Island marmots, are sloppy. “They’ll leave the hide and the skeleton and will consume all the internal organs,” McAdie says.

In the early 2000s, predation by golden eagles was also cause for concern. Golden eagles were only a vagrant species on Vancouver Island until Eurasian rabbits were introduced, affording the raptors an easy food source and prompting the establishment of golden eagle populations. Golden eagles can’t lift a marmot, which typically weigh between four and seven kilos. They’ll use their talons to drag the marmot along the ground, letting gravity sever the spine, and will eat only the organs. “Generally, there are signs of the eagle striking the marmot and signs of a bit of a struggle,” McAdie says. “Quite often they’ll leave a few feathers [and] quite often before they fly they’ll defecate as well so they’ll leave some whitewash.”

Scientists believe that marmots arrived on Vancouver Island up to 100,000 years ago, crossing from the mainland on land connections about the time the first modern humans, Cro-Magnons, emerged in Africa. Marmots were hunted by First Nations in the late summer for robes and food. Prehistoric marmot remains have been found at eight locations on Vancouver Island, all outside the marmot’s current area of distribution, suggesting a much larger historical range. One paleontological find in a cave near Nimpkish Lake, just south of Port McNeill, was radiocarbon dated to 10,000 years ago. Other undated remains have been found in caves near Tahsis.

In June, scientists published a paper that examined almost 30,000 species of terrestrial vertebrates to determine which are on the brink of extinction. They found 515 species with fewer than 1,000 individuals, species they said “likely will become extinct soon.”

Taylor read the paper with concern. He agreed with its conclusion that swift action is imperative to prevent more species from becoming extinct. But among those 515 species the scientists said are likely to become extinct soon is the Vancouver Island marmot. When it comes to the marmot, Taylor says, “we’re going to prove them wrong.”

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