With three new pups born in May, two more Vancouver Island marmots were released on Mount Washington Monday as part of the annual program to increase the species in the wild.
Malcolm McAdie, project veterinarian, captive breeding co-ordinator for the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation said the wild population is about 150 to 200, while the captive population is around 60.
The captive-bred marmots – which are bred at the Toronto and Calgary zoos – are part of 18 marmots who will be joining the wild population of the critically endangered species this year.
The release Monday was the second release of the year. Earlier in June, the foundation released a solitary female in the Nanaimo Lakes region. Other releases are set to take place in Strathcona Provincial Park.
The Vancouver Island marmot population has been recovering since the species nearly went extinct in the early 2000s.
From 2003, when fewer than 30 wild marmots remained, the population has grown significantly, but it is still at a level where the population needs to be increased, noted McAdie.
“Right now, we have these small colonies – we have a number of them, but they’re small, and they’re susceptible to predation.”
He noted climate change does play a factor in their population.
“When you have an animal that’s this rare, some people compare it to a drunk person walking on the edge of a cliff. There’s always the potential for a catastrophe. It’s more the variation of weather – drier summers or changes in the snowpack.”
He said within thousands of years, the marmot’s population has expanded and decreased, and like many species in extreme environments, only time will tell how they are able to cope with the changes.
Adam Taylor, executive director of the foundation credited the Calgary and Toronto zoos for investing significant research time into the species, and within the last year, the foundation wanted to help the population’s recovery with increased breeding.
“We really weren’t expecting (captive marmots) to breed until next year, but we have our first litter of pups right now. And we’re over the moon to see our first three pups – they will be released next year,” he explained.
The parents – Sally and Pepsi – are “good, established marmots,” but playing the marmot dating game is a bit of luck and a bit of strategy.
“You try every year to figure out which marmots will get together. What we figured out is marmots that sleep together, stay together. Marmots that hibernate in the same burrow when they wake up they tend to be pretty cozy together even if those two marmots couldn’t stand each other the previous year.”
Taylor said marmots – especially those with pups – are especially fun to watch in the wild.
“They’re always near mom and dad – they’re very active parents.”
For more information about the Vancouver Island marmot and the foundation, visit www.marmots.org