A Life Raft For The Species

The total world population of Vancouver Island marmots had plummeted to less than 100 individuals by the late 1990’s making it unlikely the population could rebound on its own. To rescue the last of the population an intensive captive breeding program was initiated to provide a “life-raft” for the species should extinction occur in the wild. Marmot reintroductions in Europe suggest that moderate numbers (~20 per year) of releasable animals are required to ensure a reasonable chance of success.

From 1997-2004, 56 marmots were taken into captivity to begin the captive  breeding program (31 males and 25 females). The majority were pups or yearlings to minimize disruption to established breeding pairs in the wild.

The national captive breeding program involves partner facilities across the country. Marmots were sent to four separate facilities as a safety measure. They include the Calgary and Toronto Zoos, Mountain View Conservation Centre (a private facility in Langley, BC) and the Tony Barrett Mt Washington Marmot Recovery Centre on Vancouver Island.

Maintaining a healthy captive population will provide animals for annual release while protecting the genetic diversity of the species. Marmots chosen for breeding or release to the wild are carefully selected according to their genetic importance to ensure the general health of the population.

Marmots in captivity are carefully managed by endangered species specialists following strict animal protocol to retain as much natural marmot behaviour as possible. Handling is minimized, out-door pens simulating natural habitat are provided and the marmots are allowed to hibernate as they would in the wild. And, as a protection measure, marmots in captivity are quarantined from other animals to minimize the risk of animal-to-animal and between-facility disease transmission.

The current program of intensive captive management will be maintained until there are reasonable assurances that the wild population is robust enough to withstand random events and is genetically diverse and capable of maintaining this diversity with limited intervention.

The Tony Barrett Mt Washington Marmot Recovery Centre

Built in 2001 within marmot habitat, the Recovery Centre provides a key link in the management and release of captive-born animals prior to their release to other sites in the wild. The Recovery Centre provides disease management by providing the final stage of quarantine in a single species facility and provides logistical flexibility for releasing marmots – that is, allowing the marmots to be acclimated to release conditions with respect to elevation, weather and natural foods. It also allows for the marmots that are to be released to be held back until field conditions are suitable. An important option during the last few years, when many of the release sites were not accessible until well into July because of unusual snow patterns. Therefore, the need for a dedicated marmot facility on Vancouver Island will undoubtedly continue as long as there is a need for intensive captive management of Vancouver Island marmots as currently exists.