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Updates from the Team

Adam Taylor joining the Marmot Recovery Foundation

Adam Taylor is joining the Marmot Recovery Foundation as the incoming Executive Director. Over the next month he will be assuming Viki’s role, as she retires to new adventures! In a while, we’ll have some notes on Viki’s retirement, and all that she has accomplished on behalf of the Marmots. But first, an introduction from Adam:

“The story of the Vancouver Island Marmot is a remarkable one, and I am very excited to start playing a part in that story, albeit a small and backstage one.

While I am new to the Marmots, I do bring some experience in conservation and in protecting species at risk. For the past 8 years I was the Executive Director of Habitat Acquisition Trust, a local land trust that works to conserve natural areas and species in the Greater Victoria-area. For me, the opportunity to help the Marmot was too great to pass up. Vancouver Island Marmots are a special animal in ways, and their story gives me hope for the future of other endangered species struggling to hold on in a changing world.

The Marmot Recovery Foundation and our partners have done a remarkable job of bringing this uniquely Canadian species back from the very brink of extinction. Thanks to work of caring individuals and communities, the population of wild Vancouver Island Marmots has risen from a low of 27 in 2003 to around 300 today. In the times we live in, it is rare to hear of such success in recovering an endangered species, and heartening for all of us who care for our planet’s wildlife.

Adam TaylorHowever, conservation is never without challenges, and I know that we still have our work cut out for us. At 300 marmots, there are still fewer marmots in the wild today than there are Giant Pandas (1500 to 3000), Mountain Gorillas (about 800), or Siberian Tigers (about 500). The Marmot continues to keep company with the most the endangered animals on Earth. At same time, new threats are emerging to jeopardize Marmots. Climate change is occurring much faster in the Marmots’ alpine habitats than in the low-lands, and significant changes are already being observed. Lower snowpacks and warmer winters may make it harder for marmots to hibernate. As well, a rising tree-line brings deer and elk browsing for food, and with them come other predators, for whom a marmot might be an easy snack. There are political challenges too – government funding cuts, and shifting priorities.

Despite that, I remain optimistic. Extremely so, even. The reality is that it has taken a community to launch and sustain the rescue of the Vancouver Island Marmot. While I speak of the work of biologists, zoo keepers, and veterinarians, it is the support of donors who have made their work possible. Donations have been and continue to be the largest part of the funding that enable biologists like Cheyney Jackson and Mike Lester, and wildlife vets like Malcolm McAdie to do their work.

I am looking forward to meeting you, and working with you to ensure that Vancouver Island Marmots are part of our future.”

Adam Taylor
Vancouver Island, BC

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Bed time and season’s end

Well, it had to happen sometime – the 2015 Vancouver Island marmot field season has officially come to an end. We thought this would be the perfect time to review some of our activities and findings this past summer. It was a crazy ride!

Milestones:
Early emergence – The marmots at some colonies were up and about before we even thought to go looking for them! In most years, marmots emerge in May or June, but this year, marmots at one colony in the Nanaimo Lakes region were up and running (literally!) in the first week of April.

Releases – In June and July, we released 24 captive-bred marmots into the wild. Thirteen were released on Mt. Washington for pre-conditioning or for breeding purposes, and eleven were released directly into beautiful Strathcona Provincial Park.

Translocations – To give those eleven captive-bred marmots some experienced buddies to teach them how to live in the wild, we mixed them into groups with 4 pre-conditioned marmots (captive-bred but already had one year of wild experience) and 12 wild-born marmots. These marmot groups were released at seven locations in Strathcona Provincial Park.

Reproduction – We counted at least 35 pups in the Nanaimo Lakes region, 9 pups on Mt. Washington or in Forbidden Plateau, 4 pups in Western Strathcona, and 4 pups at one of our experimental colonies in Clayoquot Plateau Provincial Park. That adds up to a grand total of 52 pups seen in the wild in 2015!

Dispersal – Every year, some teenage marmots decide to leave their natal colony to find and join a new colony where they can breed. This process is incredibly important for the health and persistence of wild marmot populations. We were excited to confirm at least 4 successful dispersals in Nanaimo Lakes, 6 in Forbidden Plateau, and 2 in Western Strathcona.

Early hibernation – After such a mild winter and spring, the marmots gained weight early and quickly this summer. By August 20, we found marmots preparing for the 2015-16 hibernation. Vancouver Island marmots are excellent hibernators, so for the marmots that survived to hibernation, there is a very good chance that we’ll see them again next year. In fact, we’re already looking forward to it!

Biggest surprise of 2015 – This award clearly goes to Alan, the Vancouver Island marmot that nearly became a Pacific Ocean marmot when he made his home at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre!

We hope that you enjoyed hearing about our recovery efforts this past season. Next year’s field season will start in May 2016, and if this year was any indication, there are sure to be all kinds of exciting discoveries. Until then, we wish you a warm and cozy hibernation!

 

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Marmot surveys – by helicopter

Vancouver Island has mountains galore, but these mountains really vary in their size, spread, and accessibility. In the Nanaimo Lakes region, for instance, there are over a dozen mountains with Vancouver Island marmot colonies where field crew can drive close enough to survey the marmots in a single day. In Strathcona Provincial Park, however, the mountains are big – really big – and most colonies can’t be reached so quickly. In places like this, we rely on helicopters to help us monitor marmot survival and location. And it’s a good thing, too, because marmots do not always stay where we release them! Like many captive-bred or translocated animals that are released into new environments, marmots like to explore their new habitat. Some even explore their way off a mountain and up a new one! Last week, we conducted our end-of-season telemetry flights for the colonies in Strathcona Provincial Park, and we detected pairs of marmots on two completely new mountains. Although we would have liked the marmots to stay where we released them, this is still really exciting news. Biologists agree that one of the keys to the recovery of the Vancouver Island marmot is making sure that colonies are numerous and widely distributed, in order to protect them from catastrophic events. So even though these marmots make us work harder to find them, this expanding distribution is truly a positive sign for their recovery.

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Pups Born In Captivity – 2015

Fifteen new marmot pups are facing a brighter future.

The Vancouver Island marmot captive population serves two important and distinct purposes. First, it is a safety-net or life-boat population to protect the species from the threat of extinction, and secondly it produces healthy new recruits, like the pups born this spring ready for release in 2016, to rebuild the wild populations.

Captive breeding is an intensive means to rescue an endangered species from the brink of extinction before it is too late to intervene. Fortunately for the Vancouver Island marmot it was not too late and the release of captive-born recruits is succeeding to increase the population. Of course numbers aren’t the complete story. There are many other obstacles for the marmots to overcome before they can be declared safely recovered.

The captive population is carefully maintained to protect its genetic diversity. Marmots are selected for breeding, or release to the wild, based on their relative genetic importance and kinship (to avoid inbreeding). This careful management has retained over 96% of the original founders’ genetic diversity.

The original 55 wild-born founders were captured between 1997 and 2004. Since the birth of the very first Vancouver Island marmot pups in captivity in 2000, 167 weaned litters have been born totalling 566 pups.

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Nest boxes for newbies

If you have ever wandered around Mt. Washington in the summer months, you may have come across a plywood box with a hole in the front and wondered what you were looking at. If that’s the case, you discovered a Vancouver Island marmot nest box! Vancouver Island marmots are currently bred at the Toronto and Calgary Zoos, which have housed and bred marmots for the recovery program since 1997 and 1998, respectively. When in captivity, marmots don’t have access to the deep soils in which they would typically dig burrows; instead, they are given nest boxes to use. Captive marmots use nest boxes just like wild marmots use burrows – they sleep in them, raise their young in them, and hide in them.

Nest boxes actually have two holes, one in the front and one in the back. So when captive-bred marmots are released to the wild, they are released into a nest box that is connected to a true marmot burrow. When field crew install nest boxes, they line them with bedding used by the marmots in captivity so that the nest box will smell like home, and they provide a few snacks to help them get through the first day. And as soon as the last marmot is released through the nest box and into the burrow, the entrance door is temporarily blocked by a piece of wood or a rock (as shown in the photo). This usually happens for just a few minutes, to encourage the marmots to explore the burrow and learn that it is safe before they start exploring the rest of their new habitat. Captive-bred marmots may continue to use their nest box to access this burrow, but they will no longer sleep in it – once they are in the wild, captive-bred marmots sleep underground, too.

The nest boxes used in 2015 have now been removed from the wild in preparation for winter. But if your eyes are sharp enough to see a nest box in the future, be sure to look out for its new residents – Vancouver Island marmots!

Photo credit: Patrick Reid.

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While it is still early in the year for Vancouver Island marmots, our survey results so far have been positive. Overwinter survival for the marmots has been high, particularly among breeding aged females. This is exactly what we hope to find at this time of year. Later in the summer when pups start to emerge, we will be looking for signs of reproduction – that is to say active pups. We have feeders out at a number of colonies, which we believe may help the marmots reproduce more frequently. Our fingers are crossed that lots of those breeding-aged females have litters!

Many people have been asking about the weather. Vancouver Island has had a particular cold and wet spring, which followed a cold winter! However, it does not seem to have had any negative impact on the marmots. In fact, weather station data suggests that after a few mild alpine springs, this year’s alpine weather was closer to the historic norm.

While there is a lot of work ahead of us this year, this is good news for the start of the season!
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Vancouver Island marmots are emerging from hibernation. This is wonderful news, but also a challenging time of year for the marmots. As they recover from 7 months of sleep, the marmots rely on the last of their stored energy reserves. Once they have reinvigorated their digestive system, they are able to find food, even in the snow covered mountains. Conditions in the alpine this year are fairly normal, despite the poor weather we have had at lower elevations.

We have put out feeders, targeted to help females improve their body condition rapidly. In turn, we hope they will breed more often than they would without help.

The BBC did a great segment on the challenge Vancouver Island marmots face this time of year:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=Svm6yqKx-Go
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