The transition from life in a Zoo-setting to life in the wild is dramatic for our Vancouver Island Marmots. Despite the efforts that the Calgary Zoo, Toronto Zoo and ourselves make to ensure marmot enclosures resemble the wild, with free access to outdoor spaces, artificial burrows, and rocks and logs to climb and carry, there is no way to truly recreate the boundless spaces, cliffs, and meadows of the marmots’ natural habitat. So it’s amazing to see how quickly the marmots adapt to their home. Often we will see them eating wild vegetation within an hour of release (sometimes it is just minutes before they start sampling the local delicacies).
However, we also know that other elements of the transition are harder. Captive bred marmots tend to go exploring more often than their wild born counterparts, which too often puts them in harm’s way. They have a harder time with their first hibernation too, especially in Strathcona Park where conditions can be harsh. The good news is that if these marmots can make it for a couple years, their survival from then on is just as good as their wild-born relatives.
To improve the survival of captive-born marmots, we decided to try releasing some to the relatively safe colony at Mount Washington for one year. The Mount Washington colony has lots of marmots, is lower elevation with more green for a longer time, and perhaps most importantly, has people nearby that scare away predators. The following year, we re-capture these “stepping-stone” marmots and release them in far more remote colonies in Strathcona Provincial Park.
It seemed to be working, but analyzing the data to build a solid model of the difference this “stepping-stone” approach made was very difficult. Thankfully, the Calgary Zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research and U.S. Geological Service agreed to analyze our data.
And indeed, this release methodology makes a substantial difference, and captive-bred marmots released using the stepping-stone approach have much better survival rates in Strathcona Park. When the first results came in two years ago we transitioned entirely to this approach for all marmots released to Strathcona, but it has taken longer to get to publication.
Now, you can read all about it in the journal Animal Conservation! Authors include the Foundation’s own Field Coordinator, Cheyney Jackson, with Natasha Lloyd and Axel Moehrenschlager of the Calgary Zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research, U.S. Geological Service’s Nathan Hostetter, and University of Washington’s Sarah Converse.
“Optimizing release strategies: a stepping‐stone approach to reintroduction”: https://zslpublications.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acv.12448