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Updates from the Team

Putting the marmots to bed

Time to put the marmots to bed. We’re making our last visits to marmot colonies to pin down hibernacula before winter arrives. Yesterday, the crew paid a “farewell til spring” visit to Haley Bowl.

We try to record exactly where the marmots are hibernating. This helps us avoid sensitive hibernacula when we come to do restoration work after the marmots have gone to sleep.

Knowing where the marmots hibernate also helps us improve our releases and signals who might be producing pups in the spring – marmots that hibernate together (often) stay together. For example, yesterday we learned that Alan and Towhee are hibernating together, and we are hopeful for pups next spring!

At Haley Bowl we learned that all but two of the marmots are underground, and the remaining two (Gary and Anik) are alive and awake. The news is not always that good. On Tuesday at a nearby colony, we found two marmots, Galiano and Saturna, had been predated a cougar.

Here’s hoping for a good winter and great marmot sleeps!

Jordan listens for pings. In addition to helping us pin down the marmots, the ping rate tells us the marmot’s body temperature, which we use to deduce whether the marmot is awake or in hibernation.

Muffin’s hiberculum is located! It does not look like much from the outside, but we record the coordinates for future reference.

Most field days recently have been wet, gray, and cold. But Haley Bowl gifted us with sun and crisp air on our send off visit. We are not planning any restoration at Haley, so this is goodbye until year – not a bad farewell!

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September Marmot of the Month – Meet Nicola

Meet Nicola, September’s Marmot of the Month. At 12 years old, Nicola is the eldest known wild Vancouver Island Marmot. She is now blind in one eye, and the other is becoming occluded by a cataract. Her coat shows the wear and tear of the years. Yet, amazingly, not only is she still alive, but producing pups. This year she had another litter at Mount Washington, making her truly a mother of marmots.

To those who work with her, Nicola is known as a laid-back troublemaker. She is known to wander down off the slopes of her Mount Washington home into the village area in search of… something, we aren’t sure what. However, she is so fond of peanut butter that catching her is never a problem, and the hike back up the hill does not seem to stress her at all.

Nicola is setting new records for wild marmots, and has played an important part in the early recovery of her species. We hope that she continues to do so for a few more years yet.

In the photo below, you can see Nicola’s blind, white eye if you look closely.

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A Field Day at Haley Lake Ecological Reserve

A field day at Haley Lake Ecological Reserve in late August had a little something of everything: rain, sun, good news and sad, and lots of surprises.

Good news first, then the photos! One of our goals for the day to find a deceased marmot, Lucky Lucy.  Earlier this year, we detected Lucy with an odd signal, and we were pretty confident she had died though we were not able find her body. We could not be happier to be wrong! Lucky Lucy was detected alive a nearby mountain! We were only able to detect her from a distance, so we don’t know what caused the odd signal, and with winter approaching it may be sometime before we are able to learn anything more.

Earlier morning weather was a little wet, and when we first arrived, none of the marmots were not interested in venturing outside their burrows. However, even when the marmots are hiding, Haley Bowl is a beautiful spot.

Using telemetry, we were able to confirm that most of Haley’s resident marmots were still on site, even if they were staying dry underground. A few odd-balls, like Alan and Anik, required a some hiking to track down.

Sadly, telemetry also indicated Myrtle had died. We located her remains in a copse of woods, buried under a thin layer of branches and twigs. The evidence suggests that she was predated on by a cougar. Michael Boudreau collected her remains for further examination by veterinarians.

On our way out we made one last stop at the main meadow, and the marmots were waiting for us! Three marmots, including Alan, Muffin, and Towhee (pictured here) were sunning themselves now that the skies had cleared. Alan, always the traveler, had either made the trip between Bell Creek and Haley Bowl during the day, or had managed to fool us with his location. He does seem to be spending a lot of time near Towhee – perhaps he will finally settle down?

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Mount Arrowsmith surprise

A welcome surprise for our recovery effort is the discovery of a thriving colony at Mount Arrowsmith. While we knew there were a few marmots in the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Reserve, we had only ever observed one emergence hole. This signaled to us that likely the colony was small. We were surprised in early 2018 when hikers began reporting marmots on Mount Arrowsmith, and even more surprised when we counted 12 pups and 6 adults spread across three locations on the mountain! We prioritized getting some marmots tagged so that we could start keeping better track of this successful colony. 

This is just one of the curious pups that greeted our field crew. We do not tag pups, but the adults, wisely, are more cautious. 

A couple of the young pups, just outside their burrow.  This burrow itself is hidden in the grass, but not all of the marmots’ hidey-holes are so difficult to spot. The Field Crew usually look for a “front porch” of rock and soil made by the marmots when they dig their burrow. This pair have an extra well-hidden burrow – if only they would use it!

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Green Mountain Marmot Release

On Friday, July 13th we released 10 marmots to 5 mountains in the Nanaimo Lakes area. Despite superstitious date, the releases went well, and thanks you some help form our friends, these marmots have successfully begun the first step of their transition to the wild.  Below are photos and stories from Green Mountain, the first to receive its marmots on this morning.

Green Mountain Wildlife Management Area is set aside specifically for Vancouver Island Marmots, and has been home to a small colony of marmots for over decade. Last year, a predator caught most of the colony, leaving only a single male marmot, Parker, on the mountain. To prevent the colony from becoming extinct, we had prioritized it for releases this year.

To support the work and keep costs down, the field team is divided into groups. Field Coordinator Mike Lester and veterinarian Malcolm McAdie ride in the helicopter with all the marmots. The rest of the Field Team hike up release mountains in the morning to meet the helicopter. This keeps costs down, as the helicopter is most expensive part of this day.

At Green Mountain, veteran team member Norberto Pancera leads the group. The “Green Team” also includes MRF’s Executive Director Adam Taylor, and two employees of the Calgary Zoo, Kelly and Llewellyn. Kelly and Llewellyn’s help mean we’re able to get to more mountains today. Our goal: to get all the marmots released before the day gets too hot. Other field teams on other mountains today include Megan and Jordan at Mt Washington and Michael and Clemens at Haley Bowl.

The “Green” team left Nanaimo at 5:30 am, to allow enough time to hike up the mountain and meet helicopter at 8:00 am. Read through the photos to find out how the rest the release went, and meet Denman and Bligh, the newest residents of Green Mountain

After the steep hike in, the first order of business is tracking down Parker. We don’t want to release the marmots right on top of him! At the same time, the team is scouting for a good burrow to release Bligh and Denman too. A great burrow is located within a short hike of the helicopter landing spot.

The terrain at Green Mountain is rocky, steep, and covered in lush layer of ferns, grasses, and wildflowers – perfect for marmots. Malcolm and Mike are a little later than planned. That’s alright, the hike in took us a little longer than planned too!

The foundations of an old ski hut make the perfect landing spot. Norberto waits nearby to receive the marmots. The Helicopter only touches down for moments. Mike and Malcolm unload Bligh and Denman. The hand off takes less than 5 minutes, and then the helicopter is off again.

Now its up to the field team. Fortunately, we don’t have far to go today. Kelly carries Bligh to the burrow selected earlier. The marmots are stressed. Everything is new to them – the helicopter, the people, and the open mountain. We’ll try to keep them in the burrow for a few minutes to show them its a safe spot.

While Bligh stays inside the burrow, Denman bolts. He manages to leap past all of us. Fortunately, he does not go far. 
Plan B: Denman has picked a spot about 50 meters downhill. Perhaps a peanut butter trail will lead him back to the burrow?
Meanwhile, Bligh starts to explore! She’s been eating the peanut butter and leaf biscuits already, and seems to be adjusting rapidly to life in the wild.

Denman is still stressed. The crew back off to give him time and space. Before leaving, we confirm that he has made his way back to the rock just above the burrow. Still, we need to come back soon to make sure he is adapting to his world.

All in all, a success. Together, Parker, Bligh, and Denman will hopefully keep the colony at Green Mountain alive.

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On this Earth Day, you are likely to be reminded that wildlife globally is suffering. However, with work and dedication, it is possible to make a positive difference for even the most endangered species. If you follow us here, you are likely aware of the Vancouver Island marmot's story - from fewer than 30 wild marmots in 2003, to about 200 today.

Thank you to our donors and partners who are making the marmot's recovery possible. The marmots would not be here without you!

Enjoy this video, taken by the amazing Alena Ebeling-Schuld, of young Vancouver Island Marmots cautiously exploring the world outside their burrow.
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Possibly right now, the first marmots are beginning the long process of waking up in their hibernacula, becoming more and more restless as the snow above them begins to melt. Soon, they will begin to dig their way out through the dirt and snow, looking for food as their bodies recover from the rigors of hibernation.

For us, one of the great pleasures is seeing the first marmot of the year. Tracks, emergence holes, and telemetry provide us with much needed data, but there is still something special about the first time you lay eyes on a marmot. Will the first marmot we see in 2019 will the same marmot we spotted first last year?

Despite her name, Field Coordinator Mike Lester first spotted June late last April, on the Mount Washington Ski Hill. At 10 going on 11, June is one our older marmots. Born in the wild colony at Mount Washington, she has given birth to many pups over the years, though these days she is beginning to show her age. Her fur is a bit mangy, but we like to think it gives her extra character. June often hangs out by the “Hawk unload,” one of the ski lift drop off points on the hill. As such, while she may not realize it, June is among the most photographed and watched of all wild Vancouver Island marmots.

We are looking forward to seeing June and her extended family, but we hope we have to wait a few more weeks for the first marmots to appear above ground. The longer snow stays on the ground, the better. Melting snow provides water to the meadows throughout the summer and fall, and in turn that provides the marmots with green, nutritious vegetation to eat all season.

It is important to note that June, or whichever marmot we first observe, is probably not the first marmot out of hibernation. Most of the marmot colonies are not accessible in the early season due to avalanche hazard, and we are able access Mount Washington much earlier than nearly any other site. The first marmot observation of the season is special to us, but there are other early risers, bringing marmot whistles back to mountains for another summer. We can’t wait to see them too.
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