Hide and seek: The race to save the Vancouver Island Marmot

In the field with researchers and volunteers scrambling to save Canada’s most endangered mammal 

  • Published Apr 21, 2023
  • Updated Apr 26
  • 2,418 words
  • 10 minutes
  • By Mike Berard
  • with photography by Ryan Tidman
Two marmots lean in to nuzzle noses. This bonding behaviour is unique to Vancouver Island marmots in the marmot family.
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It’s not easy to spot a Vancouver Island marmot in the wild. For the past 30 years, I have spent my summers hiking and swimming in the mountainous paradise of Strathcona Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. Founded in 1911, British Columbia’s oldest park showcases over 250,000 hectares of slate-grey peaks and flower-filled valleys. It is ideal marmot country. I never saw one.

On the park’s eastern border overlooking the Salish Sea, Mount Washington Alpine Resort has been home to the largest single colony of this elusive animal for decades. I spent summers riding the resort’s mountain bike trails. I never saw a marmot there, either.

Decades later, I’m standing in a dirt parking lot at the resort on a heavy grey autumn day. I’m here with a Vancouver Island University class learning advanced outdoor skills. With a dozen students surrounding him, Mike Lester, former field coordinator for the Marmot Recovery Foundation, holds aloft a wire contraption attached to a handheld radio. It looks like a TV antenna from the ’80s, and it provides me with my best chance — by far — of actually seeing a Vancouver Island marmot in its natural habitat.

Marmots bulk up in the short summer by feasting on more than 40 species of grasses, herbs and wildflowers.
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Canada has just five endemic land mammals — mammals found nowhere else in the world. The Vancouver Island marmot is one of them. Marmots have run wild over North America for millennia. When sea levels fell during a glacial period, the marmots that walked over to Vancouver Island on land bridges were ultimately left to evolve in the mountains when the sea levels rose again. Fast forward several millennia, and today these marmots boast their own unique DNA, culture and set of challenges. 

While mainland marmots are often hunted as pests, Van Isle’s version is no varmint. Found in the subalpine regions stretching from Strathcona Provincial Park south to the Nanaimo Lakes, their deep chocolate-brown fur and white nose patches set them apart from their lighter-coloured cousins. Like all marmots, the Vancouver Island version has prominent teeth, sharp claws and robust shoulder and leg muscles. They need those muscles to dig deep burrows and escape tunnels in the rocky meadows in these mountains, where they spend up to eight months a year hibernating. Adults measure 65 to 70 centimetres from their pointy noses to the tips of their flat, bushy tails and weigh up to 7.5 kilograms, about the size of a very hefty domestic cat.

Marmots are in a tough environment, and it’s hard for them to reproduce. We just want to help them

They bulk up in the short summer season by feasting on more than 40 species of grasses, herbs and wildflowers, then shed up to one-third of their mass in hibernation. Researchers believe these chubby survivors hibernate together in groups called colonies. And when they leave these burrows and tunnel out through metres of snow each spring, a world of danger awaits.

Mike Lester surveys the back side of Mount Arrowsmith using radio telemetry. In the distance is the Strait of Georgia.
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The road to Mount Washington Alpine Resort and this plucky colony is an uphill journey through the marmot’s worst enemies: clearcuts, cougars and the fallout from climate change dominate Vancouver Island’s mountains. It all came to a head in the ’90s, when we almost lost the marmots forever. The Marmot Recovery Foundation was born in 1998. In 2003, foundation researchers counted just five wild females of breeding age. The researchers, and their partners, have been breeding marmots in captivity ever since, “supplementing” the declining population of wild marmots so that they can “get through this stage and adapt to the changing conditions,” says Lester, who still volunteers with the foundation. They also began fitting marmots with tracking devices to make it easier to find them and to monitor what they were up to. 

A changing habitat is one major factor imperilling the marmots: possible explanations include the flooding of Buttle Lake in Strathcona Provincial Park in the 1960s, which interfered with the marmots’ ability to move between colonies to avoid inbreeding, and warmer temperatures leading to “tree creep,” the elevational migration of trees upwards and into the marmots’ meadow habitat. Researchers, unable to pin the marmots’ troubles on any one factor, point out that the conditions that devastated these rodents in the 1990s differ from the ones hurting them today. It’s frustrating, but it’s also the reason more research is needed. 

And while the environmental factors endangering these marmots are very much on display, other dangers lurk in the shadows. Higher-elevation logging has created habitat for deer and elk, which in turn attract cougars. The big cats can wreak havoc on marmot meta-populations, the name given to a network of colonies. Though marmots are not their primary food source, a cougar can decimate a colony with little effort, and they often do. “On the transmitters we’ve recovered quick enough, we can usually determine the cause of mortality based off the pattern of consumption of the remains,” explains Kevin Gourlay, Marmot Recovery Foundation field coordinator. “It’s how we know that the cougar is the marmot’s primary predator right now.”

To a lesser extent, wolves and golden eagles are also a threat, and logging roads make excellent travel corridors for hungry wolves. This is how extinction happens, when movement is maximized for predators but limited for prey due to habitat transformation and climate change. What can a marmot do? Hide, hope and wait for a few helpful humans to get involved.

This marmot was birthed and raised in captivity. To transition from captive to wild, it is initially released into a “den box,” which the marmot can return to until it finds a burrow on the mountain.
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When the first people arrived on Vancouver Island, it’s probable they found a thriving population of the social species flourishing from tip to tip of the Vancouver Island Ranges. Hunters would have definitely heard them — with a piercing whistle and five distinct vocalizations (the most of any marmot species), Vancouver Island marmots are far from silent. However, capturing one is no mean feat. Which brings us back to the parking lot of Mount Washington Alpine Resort, the Marmot Recovery Foundation and Lester’s trusty antennas. 

In the late 1990s, when the foundation was conceived, biologists estimated there were just 100 marmots living in the wild, and the population was crashing fast. Left alone, the Vancouver Island marmot was destined for extinction within a matter of years.

To know how to help a marmot, you must be able to find one. And that is why, in the decades since the Marmot Recovery Foundation was launched, a coordinated effort to save the marmot has included both a captive breeding program and an ongoing effort to track the elusive mammals — implanting marmots with transmitters, then following their progress through the data their trackers send out. That’s why we’re standing here today, antenna aloft, waiting for a signal. 

Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo; Data credits: Marmot population data, Marmot Recovery Foundation; Potential marmot habitat data: Thelin, L ET. AL., The potential effects of climate change on the habitat ranges of the Vancouver Island Marmot. The Canadian Geographer: March, 2018, Onlinelinrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cag.12448
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Lester estimates that around a third of Vancouver Island marmots at most — both wild and captive-bred — have trackers. Each tracker — a heat-sensitive transmitter shaped like a small flashlight about eight centimetres long — is surgically inserted into the marmot’s abdomen. Collars with transmitters are not an option because they would restrict a marmot’s thick neck or slide off its narrow head. All captive- bred marmots are implanted with trackers before they are released, and a Marmot Recovery Foundation vet works with the larger team to locate, trap and insert a tracker into about a dozen wild marmots each summer. The operation takes place in the alpine — in a small surgical tent barely large enough for two humans and a marmot. It’s not ideal, but it’s a lot less stressful to the marmots than transporting them to civilization and then back out again.

Without trackers and telemetry, researchers would have little chance of locating even one marmot in the wild. When you’re a food source, you’re always on the lookout, adept at disappearing at the slightest hint of danger.

This marmot was birthed and raised in captivity. To transition from captive to wild, it is initially released into a “den box,” which the marmot can return to until it finds a burrow on the mountain.
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A field crew of four to six from the Marmot Recovery Foundation heads out each summer, hiking with antennas held aloft to search for and locate their quarry in some of the province’s most mountainous terrain. But even with technology, finding an actual marmot or its transmitter in the field isn’t simple. Not only are these rodents naturally elusive; they love to travel, sometimes up to several kilometres in a single day over rough terrain.

On this bright autumn day, I hike with the Vancouver Island University class under the Sunrise Quad, one of five chairlifts that transport skiers to their favourite Mount Washington runs. In the winter, while marmots hibernate metres below the snowpack, those skiers and snowboarders make wide, arcing turns above their burrows. Not a peep will be heard until they emerge in May.

In mid-September, however, they chirp regularly as we wave around telemetry equipment and scour the mountainside with binoculars. Despite the chatter and evidence of burrows, we still do not spot any actual marmots. Which is not to say they aren’t there. On this day, the radio equipment leads us to a pile of sharp rocks, where the instructor precisely locates “Dalmore” hiding somewhere beneath our feet. Over the years, researchers have named some of the marmots by theme: Star Wars, Game of Thrones and, in the case of Dalmore, a renowned single malt Scotch whisky. 

“Even at a distance, these things can pick up a signal with a clear line of sight,” Lester explains as he holds up the antenna. “This thing is like a telescope, and looking for where the marmots might have gone is most of my job.” The strength of the pulse helps the Marmot Recovery Foundation find the location of each chipped marmot, while the speed of the pulse helps the crew determine whether the marmot is alive or dead. If it has died, retrieved transmitters can help researchers figure out how and why.

A view inside the surgery tent, where each operation takes about 45 minutes.
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The captive breeding program, launched in 1997, has become “a life raft for the species” according to Gourlay. Between 1997 and 2003, some 55 marmots were brought into captivity, kicking off the celebrated breeding program that led to today’s successes. Marmots were sent to four separate breeding facilities, including the Calgary and Toronto zoos. The crowning achievement of this coordinated breeding program is the Tony Barrett Mount Washington Marmot Recovery Centre, named after the foundation executive director who led the fundraising for the centre. Sadly, he passed away unexpectedly before construction was completed.

Built in 2001 on the grounds of the Mount Washington Alpine Resort, the centre is a permanently quarantined safe space where marmot pups are raised to supplement the wild population. As we sneak up on the fenced indoor-outdoor pens, I finally spot one marmot, and then two, and then four. These pups are the promise for the future, desperately needed to lend the wild population the boost to not only survive but grow. 

Since 2003, the captive breeding program has bred and released 576 marmots. There are now 101 marmots and 15-plus breeding pairs at the Tony Barrett centre. Around 50 of the marmots housed there will be released to the wild this summer. There are also 10 breeding pairs at the Calgary Zoo and eight pairs at the Toronto Zoo. 

Over the past two decades, the captive-bred marmots have been spread between a number of key sites, with 70 per cent heading to Nanaimo Lakes and Strathcona, roughly 25 per cent to Mount Washington, and limited numbers to the areas around Mount Cain, Mount Schoen and Clayoquot Sound. Foundation staff have also periodically moved wild-born marmots between sites to shore up select colonies. “Vancouver Island marmots are in a precarious place because they don’t breed ‘like rabbits,’” says Lester, explaining that females often skip a year between litters. “These marmots are in a tough environment, and it’s hard for them to reproduce. We just want to help them.” 

To help boost the captive-bred marmots’ chances of survival, the foundation pioneered a “stepping-stone release” approach to give these inexperienced marmots a more gradual introduction to a free-roaming life in the mountains. “We started using Mount Washington as the boot camp,” says Gourlay, “where we’d release captive-bred marmots to the hill. We’d allow them to live and hibernate their first year in a captive, relatively safe environment.” 

The theory is that captive-bred marmots are naive when first released. They don’t have appropriate hibernation cycles or the skills to select the best hibernation and burrow sites or perhaps to detect and avoid predators in the wild. Once the marmots have obtained these skills in the more sheltered environment of Mount Washington, they have a better chance of thriving at colonies like Strathcona, which has fewer established burrows and is at a higher elevation so endures longer winters.

MRF staff (left to right) Kevin Gourlay, Tannin Standing and Shayn McAskin unload their gear. There is still snow on the mountaintop in summer.
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The presence of the ski hill at the Mount Washington “boot camp” is actually a bonus, as it means fewer predators. That gives the captive-born marmots a better chance of surviving long enough to learn from their more experienced counterparts — how to spot a predator, whistle an alarm call and disappear almost instantly when it hears one. This stepping-stone approach “has been one of the main reasons why we’ve been able to successfully re-establish a few colonies in Strathcona Provincial Park, where the marmots were historically extirpated,” says Gourlay.

When the marmots are released, researchers try to make it as stress-free as possible so the mammals stay in the neighbourhood — and find their wilder counterparts. “That’s part of the major animal management, trying to ensure that these guys can find each other,” says Lester. As Al Green once sang, it’s better if we stay together. With marmots, that’s easier said than done.

A tagged marmot emerges from hibernation. The foundation provides food pellets at select locations to ensure marmots have enough to eat in the early days after hibernation.
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It’s a long road ahead, but the Vancouver Island marmot has been brought back from the absolute brink of extinction. It still faces multiple obstacles in its fight for survival.
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Marmots may produce pups until they are 13 years of age, something that gives them a small advantage in this long, drawn-out battle against extinction.

Their biggest advantage is that their habitat is sloped mountain terrain. The habitat still exists because we humans haven’t found a reason to destroy it yet.

They are hardy and elusive and playful. They give it their all until the end. Should we not too?

On the way home from Mount Washington, I round a sharp corner just in time to spot an adult cougar stretched long and lean as it bounds across the road in a graceful leap. I pull the car hard over to the other side of the empty off-season road in hopes of catching a closer look. The grass still moves, bent and broken where the cat has slunk off into the slow-growing forest rising from an old clearcut. Always hunting. Forever stalking.

And the marmots stay vigilant.


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This story is from the May/June 2023 Issue

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