One of Canada’s most endangered animals is making a comeback, and it has skiers to thank for its recovery.
Vancouver Island marmots, a chunky relative of the common squirrel, have seen their numbers dwindle to barely more than two dozen.
However, due to the efforts of conservationist, the furry creatures have multiplied to around 200.
For years, officials have bred and raised the marmots in captivity and then released them on a ski resort on the island.
This allowed them to thrive without the threat of predators – and the landscape is an ideal habitat for the creatures.
In the last two years alone, more than 100 pups have been born in the wild and the number of marmots overall has increased nearly tenfold.
Thanks to the efforts of Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation, the island’s marmot population has grown from barely 30 to roughly 200
‘If you look at a ski hill, it looks exactly like marmot habitat,’ Adam Taylor, executive director of the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation, told The National Observer.
‘And at the absolute lowest point, when we had fewer than 30 Vancouver Island marmots left in the wild, 10 of them were living at that ski resort.’
Since the foundation started using Mount Washington as a sort of halfway house, marmots survival rates have increased fivefold.
After a year, the marmots are recaptured and then released again into more remote areas, like nearby Strathcona Park.
Marmots born in captivity are released at Mount Washington ski resort, where they acclimate to life in the wild. After a year, they are recaptured and re-released in more remote areas like nearby Strathcona Park
The treeless environment of a ski resort makes for an ideal home for the marmot. And the presence of humans keeps wolves, cougars and other predators away
Marmots are found across North America, Europe and Asia but the Vancouver Island marmot, the largest of the species, is endemic to this isolated sliver of British Columbia.
Their limited range has had a negative impact on their survival.
The marmots are also choice prey for cougars, wolves and golden eagles, and human activity has led to habitat depletion, as well.
Vancouver Island marmots are the largest of the species. Males can reach the size of a large house cat and weigh more than 15 pounds in the summer, when they’re fattening up for hibernation
In 2007, it was estimated that only 30 marmots remained in the wild.
By 2015, thanks to efforts by the Marmot Recovery Foundation and breeding programs at zoos in Toronto and Calgary, that number has increased to 200 individuals.
‘We need success stories in the conservation world. This is not an easy time to work with wildlife,’ Taylor said. ‘We need to be able to demonstrate that it’s possible to bring these species back, because that’s the task we’re going to be engaged in more and more often. And if we don’t have success stories, then it’s going to be really hard for us to justify why we want to save any one of these species.’
Taylor says there’s ‘real reason for real optimism’ but with numbers still so low, the threat of extermination is also close—from predators, starvation, and natural disaster.
A wildfire in August threatened a small colony of marmots on the edge of Green Mountain
A wildfire in August threatened a small colony of marmots on the edge of Green Mountain.
‘If we walked away today,’ Taylor said, ‘the species would absolutely fly back into extinction very quickly.’
This time of year, the marmots are well into their lengthy hibernation period, which lasts from September or October to April or May.
When they’re awake, the adorable critters are highly social, forming groups of about seven related individuals.
Marmots hibernate from September or October to April or May. When they’re awake, they’re highly social, forming groups of about seven related individuals.
They have similar appearance to other marmot species, only bigger and with a darker brown coat and white patches around the chest and snout.
Males can reach the size of a large house cat and weigh more than 15 pounds in the summer, when they’re fattening up for their long slumber.
Conservationists’ surveillance cameras often catch marmot yearlings play-boxing.
‘There’s no doubt about it, they are unbearably cute,’ said Taylor. ‘They are really good ambassadors. I hope somebody discovers the Vancouver Island marmot and then finds this world of other endangered species that also need our help.’