The views are impressive, with just a chair lift overhead for five marmots who now have a new home on Mount Washington.
Thanks to the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation, the species nearly at the brink of extinction about 10 years ago is now slowly growing.
“There’s about 300 at most wild marmots on Vancouver Island, and today we were able to release five, and it will continue to allow the population to thrive, and hopefully repopulate other areas of Vancouver Island as well to allow species survival,” explained Cheyney Jackson, field co-ordinator for the foundation.
There are 15 species of marmots around the world, added Jackson, and the Vancouver Island Marmot is only found on the Island.
In 2003, there were 30 marmots left in the wild on the Island, and thanks to the work of the foundation releasing 490 captive-bread marmots, the species is growing.
Jackson noted one of the main causes of marmot mortality is predation.
“Sometimes you get overwinter mortalities related to hibernation, but the main cause is predation. Cougars, wolves and golden eagles prey on marmots. What we’ve seen is that the marmots tend to do really well on Mount Washington. We think because there’s so many people around, that helps keep predators out of the area and that’s maybe one of the secrets to their success.”
Adam Taylor, executive director of the foundation, attributes the near-extinction of Island marmots to one possible theory: large-scale landscape changes.
He said one thing researchers know from the past is that marmots would move down from their alpine habitat into areas that have been cleared of forests and establish in those zones. Ironically, once clear-cut areas began to regrow, they weren’t able to survive in a newly-forested area.
“It’s incredible to think how far the recovery program has come … (it’s) still a long, long way away from what we want to see, but it’s still an incredible recovery to date from the species that was at the absolute brink of extinction.”
Through a partnership with the Calgary and Toronto zoos, the foundation receives captive-bred marmots and have been releasing them around the Island for years. Vancouver Island marmots aren’t rapid reproducers, he said, with only two to four young born typically every other year, which controls the number of marmots the foundation can release.
Although Taylor describes the past year as “really poor” for survival, he added it did not push the population to the point of extinction.
“… we’ve lost 36 marmots last summer in Strathcona (Park). There was a time where that number was more than the number of marmots in the wild. We know from experience we can rebuild that population.”
Throughout an average winter, marmots the foundation releases have an 80 to 90 per cent survival rate.
The program is funded through a partnership with the province, Island Timberlands and TimberWest.
But Taylor noted the majority of the foundation’s funding on an annual basis comes from individual gifts from about 10,000 Canadians. They have an annual budget of $800,000 to $1.2 million, depending on the number of marmot releases.
With the Mount Washington release site – a walkable site – the costs aren’t as significant as past releases within Strathcona Park, which have to be done by helicopter. Those releases cost around $5,000 per release, not including rearing or transportation from the zoos to the Island.
Taylor said the ultimate goal is to have marmots survive in the wild without a lot of human intervention.
“We hope one of these days we can withdraw – we can stop doing these wonderful releases … that the population stays stable or starts to increase.
“We don’t know what that number is, but we think that number is somewhere between 600 and 900, but time will tell. At our best, maybe we’re halfway there,” Taylor said.