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Snow School for Marmots

Meet Pixy. She’s a 2-year-old adolescent Vancouver Island marmot, one of only about 200 of this endangered species in the world. Pixy was born at the Toronto Zoo, as part of a captive breeding program aimed at recovering this uniquely Canadian species. This summer, Pixy was released to the wild, but only after a year of ‘school.’ It’s a strategy conservationists working to protect the marmots believe is helping the species make a comeback in some of the Island’s harshest environments, like the sub-alpine of Strathcona Provincial Park.

A young marmot watches Foundation Field Crew in Strathcona Provincial Park. Photo by Ryan Tidman.

Strathcona Park is the largest protected area on Vancouver Island. Two and half thousand square kilometers of lakes, mountain peaks, glaciers, and forest, it is home to some of the most incredible scenery and wildlife in the world; including about fifty of the rare Vancouver Island marmot.

Strathcona Park emerges from the fog. Photo by Ryan Tidman

But that wasn’t the case just a few year ago. The marmot had been completely lost in the Park, part of a decline of the entire species that left fewer than 30 in the wild in 2003. As recovery efforts ramped up, the first priority was marmot habitat further south, but Strathcona was always part of the plan.

“We wanted to start where the last remaining marmots had survived, on Mount Washington and handful of mountains further south, but we knew we’d be bringing marmots back to Strathcona at some point,” recalls Cheyney Jackson, the Marmot Recovery Foundation’s Field Coordinator. “I remember when the first releases to Strathcona happened in 2007, I was pretty excited to see marmots go back into the Park.”

Unfortunately, those first released marmots struggled to survive. “The Park seems like a perfect habitat, but in hindsight it’s clear there were going to be challenges here that we hadn’t faced before.” The winters in Strathcona come earlier and end later, leaving the marmots with less time to prepare for a long hibernation. Plus there was no marmot “infrastructure” left.  “Marmots use the same burrows and hibernacula for many, many years,” Cheyney explains, “but all those homes and hideouts disappeared with the marmots.”

Perhaps most importantly, there weren’t any resident marmots to show these newcomers the ropes. Marmots are social animals, and their colony structure helps new marmots learn how to avoid predators, and teaches them the best places to sleep and when to start and end hibernation. With that realization, a plan was hatched. What if marmots could be taught how to survive before they went into Park?

That’s why Pixy is being released for the second time. Last year, when she she was released for the first time, she was let go at Mount Washington. “Mount Washington is a gentle colony for the marmots. The people keep away most of the predators, and the hills are lush with vegetation,” Cheyney says. It’s like marmot grade school – they get to learn about life in the wild, but some of the hard edges are removed.  Then, earlier this year, Pixy was caught again, and transported to Castlecrag. Her year at Mount Washington greatly improves her chances of surviving in this more remote and rugged mountain.

“The research suggests she’s about 5 times more likely to survive and produce pups of her own with this year of learning under her belt,” says Cheyney. It’s a big difference, and it has allowed marmots to begin the process of recolonizing their old meadows in the Park. “We’re seeing second and third generation marmots now, it’s thrilling.” These survivors are busy revitalizing the burrows, hibernacula, and meadows used by their great-great-grandparents, and will be ready to welcome new friends that arrive in the future.

It’s amazing what a bit of education can do.

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RIP Alan 2013(?)-2019

We have some sad news to report: Alan, the Bamfield marmot, has passed away. His remains were recovered on Tuesday from his home in Haley Lake Ecological Reserve.

Alan’s story is incredible. He first came to our attention when the Bamfield Marine Science Centre found him on the beach(!?!) in 2015. Bamfield is a long way from any marmot colony, and to this date we still do not know where he came from or how he made it to the West Coast. 

With the help of Dr Reynold and students at the Centre, we were able to catch Alan and translocate him to Haley Ecological Reserve. In the years since, Alan frustrated and surprised us with his penchant for suddenly travelling. Though he always stayed in marmot habitat, he visited every colony in the ridge line that includes Haley, and kept our field crew on their toes. Last year, he found his way back to Haley, and appeared to be settling in with long-time resident Towhee. We had been hoping the two would have a litter of pups this spring or next, but sadly Alan passed away before becoming a father (as far as we know).

Below is Alan with the ocean behind him. Photo taken by Dr John Reynolds in 2015.

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Marmots released to Haley Lake Ecological Reserve

On July 9th, we released 4 Vancouver Island marmots to Haley Lake Ecological Reserve. Due to the uncertain weather, we hiked the four into the Ecological Reserve. Nootka, Eleanor, Stark, and Hancock are now enjoying their new home! 

At the trailhead, we prep the marmots for their backpack ride to the Ecological Reserve.

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Marmots Released at Mount Washington

June 24th, Nanaimo, B.C. – This summer, 18 captive-bred marmots will be joining the wild population of the critically endangered Vancouver Island marmot. The first two were released on Monday at Mount Washington Alpine Resort.

“These two marmots were born at the Toronto Zoo last year,” says Adam Taylor, Executive Director of the Marmot Recovery Foundation. “Ezekiel and Ernest will live here for one year, then next year we will move them to a more remote colony in Strathcona Provincial Park. This stepping-stone approach to releasing marmots has been shown to help the marmots survive to adulthood.” Over the next three weeks, the Foundation will release the remaining captive bred, and translocate marmots from Mount Washington to Strathcona.

As for the marmots already living in the wild, they have now emerged from hibernation, and early indications are that overwinter survival was high. Mike Lester, Acting Field Coordinator explains. “So far, we’ve been pleased with overwinter survival at the sites we’ve been able to get to. It’s encouraging to see yearlings at this number of sites – that’s always a good sign. There are a number of sites that we haven’t been able to visit yet. I’m not willing to give you a hard number, but what we’ve seen so far is positive.”

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 to approximately 200 in the wild today.

The marmot released on Monday were born in captive breeding programs at the Toronto and Calgary Zoos. “Both Zoos play a vital role in the recovery effort,” says Taylor. “In addition to captive breeding programs, the scientists at the Zoos lead important research on marmot nutrition, stress levels, and re-introduction success that have greatly improved the program.”

The marmots released this summer will help the population continue its recovery. “It’s been a slow process, and there have been frustrating setbacks,” says Taylor.  “At the same time, it’s inspiring to see these marmots emerge each spring. They’ve overcome a lot of adversity.”

On the ground work for recovery of the Vancouver Island Marmot is funded by the Province of B.C., TimberWest, Island Timberlands, Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, the Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program, and donors across Canada. Captive breeding partners include the Calgary Zoo and Toronto Zoo.


photo: Micheal Boudreau (left) holds the trap steady, while Dr. Malcolm McAdie (top centre) and Mike Lester (bottom right) encourage the marmot into its new home.

photo: Ezekiel and Ernest tentatively explore their new surroundings.

photo: One of the pair of newly released marmots emerges from the nest box.

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First pups born at the Tony Barrett Mount Washington Marmot Recovery Centre

Last year, we asked you for additional support so that we could start breeding marmots again at the Tony Barrett Mount Washington Marmot Recovery Centre. Thanks to everyone’s gifts, we made the decision re-open breeding at the Facility in the fall.  

Today, we have wonderful news – the first pups born at the Centre! Sally and Pepsi are proud parents of 3 healthy and active pups. Vancouver Island marmots are slow breeders, and this is a full year ahead of when we expected to see our first pups. It is a wonderful surprise!

These pups will be released to the wild next year. They, and the future pups born at the Centre, will help us speed up the recovery the marmots’ wild population tremendously.

We owe a huge thank you to our donors and partners who have made this moment possible. We can’t thank you enough.

This is one of the pups peeking out from the rock structures in their outdoor pen.


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