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A Hibernating Creature Survives Near Extinction

We learn about the Vancouver Island Marmot, North America’s most endangered mammal.

By Amy Nelson

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Many of you expressed interest in learning about hibernating species that are currently threatened or endangered. Allow us to introduce Marmota vancouverensis. With a current population of 32 in the wild (and 123 in captivity), the Vancouver Island marmot is North America’s most endangered mammal. Endemic to Vancouver Island this unique creature, currently classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List, presents us with a very tangible example of the dramatic impact – both negative and positive — human action can have on a species’ population.

One of 14 marmot species (among them the woodchuck and groundhog) Vancouver Island marmots live in small patches of sub-alpine meadow, typically at elevations above 1000 meters, where these herbivores can find ample food and deep soil for digging burrows. They live in small colonies of one or more families consisting of an adult male, one or more adult females and a variable number of younger marmots. True hibernators, Vancouver Island marmots spend an average of 210 days (from September through late April or early May) “asleep” in burrows, often covered by deep snow pack. If you were to hike through Vancouver Island’s Haley Lake Ecological Reserve, you might, if you’re lucky, spot a marmot hibernaculum. They can be identified by mud or grass plugs at tunnel entrances in autumn, or by tunnels through the snow pack in late April or May.

Marmot pups, born within a few weeks of spring emergence, usually remain in their mother’s colony for their first two years. Many then leave the colony in search of mates. Because marmots avoid inbreeding, their survival depends on this dispersal. Little is known about the historic distribution or ecology of the Vancouver Island marmot, but studies have revealed that the species has disappeared from 2/3 of it’s original range within the last three or four decades (Bryant and Janz 1996).

What has happened to the Vancouver Island marmot? According to Dr. Andrew Bryant, Scientific Advisor to the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation, a public registered charity established in 1998, the rapid and dramatic decline in the marmot population can largely be attributed to the timber industry – but not for the reasons you might think. “Logging has not damaged a square meter of marmot habitat,” says Dr. Bryant, “but it has radically changed the predator-prey system. Predation, responsible for 85% of marmot mortality, is the proximate cause of marmot mortality, but the ultimate cause is landscape change caused by forestry.”

Dr. Bryant describes four “secondary processes” resulting from clear-cut logging that have dramatically impacted the marmot population. The first was an increase in the populations of marmot predators – cougars, wolves and golden eagles. Historically uncommon on Vancouver Island, Blacktailed deer found abundant food sources in the regenerating forests on clear-cut sites, and their population exploded. Deer predators — also predators of the marmot — followed. According to Dr. Bryant, the island’s population of wolves and cougars has greatly expanded since the 1970s. The population of golden eagles, also historically uncommon on Vancouver Island, grew with the increasing abundance of deer carcasses to scavenge.

Another secondary effect of clear-cut logging has been the channelization of marmots with their predators on logging roads, increasing their vulnerability. “Marmots are just as lazy as I am, and so are their predators,” Dr. Bryant explains, “if you have a choice of walking up a steep slope through an old growth forest or along a nice logging road, what are you going to do?”

A third effect of clear-cut logging is that it changed natural marmot dispersal patterns. Historically, any marmot leaving it’s birth colony would have to travel many kilometers to find a suitable mate. (Dr. Bryant once tracked a male that had moved 27 km within a couple of weeks.) But, says Dr. Bryant, “…when you create this clear-cut area 1000 feet down the mountain, the marmot doesn’t have to go so far. This disrupts the natural process of dispersal.” This disruption not only has ramifications for gene flow, but for the first time in its evolutionary history, you have many marmot colonies living in a fairly small area. “If you are a hungry cougar,” jokes Dr. Bryant, “where are you going to spend your time?”

A fourth effect comes from the fact that clear-cut sites change rapidly. Dr. Bryant explains, “A marmot encounters a clear-cut and thinks ‘I’ve reached the promised land.’ But in 15 years, it’s no longer a clear-cut. The trees have become Christmas tree sized, and this kind of habitat won’t attract new immigrants. Thus the marmots already living there won’t find new mates. Furthermore, adult marmots don’t disperse — they never needed to develop the skill to respond to a rapidly changing environment — because natural meadows do not. So, a clearcut habitat ultimately functions as kind of population ‘sink’ that offers much in the short term but becomes a trap over time.” Although Vancouver Island marmots are now so rare they cannot provide the majority of prey for any predator, they contribute to biodiversity in unique ways. They shape the vegetation of Vancouver Island’s alpine meadows, dig burrows that are used by a variety of other species, including moths and butterflies, and serve as home to a species of tapeworm that is only found on this species of marmot (and is therefore endangered as well).

But for Dr. Bryant, the real reason behind preserving the Vancouver Island marmot is its history of survival in the face of adversity. “Because Vancouver Island was buried in ice 10,000 years ago, the fauna of this island is quite impoverished,” explains Dr. Bryant. “Many of the species that were common on the mainland, such as grizzly bears, coyotes, foxes and badgers, didn’t make it here because of the glaciation. Marmots did, and they hung on by their toenails. The fact that they were able to survive that and great changes in climate over the last 10,000 years, but couldn’t survive us for the last 50 is very compelling. I think the real reason to save the Vancouver Island marmot from extinction is because that would tell us something about us.”

In a remarkable model of species stewardship, the Marmot Recovery Foundation teamed up with national and provincial government agencies, private timber companies, and a scientific advisory group to develop a National Recovery Plan for the Vancouver Island Marmot. The plan, originally drafted in 1994, revised in 2000 and currently being updated again, provides a framework for implementing marmot recovery. The goal of the recovery plan is the restoration of 400-600 marmots in the wild in three metapopulations on Vancouver Island. If all goes according to plan, Dr. Bryant believes this goal is attainable within the next 15 years. Along with ongoing identification, mapping, monitoring and protection of known and newly discovered colonies, two key strategies of the recovery plan are: population management through captive breeding and species reintroduction; and public education and fundraising.

Marmot reintroductions are becoming increasingly successful. The team released four in 2003; nine in 2004; and 15 in 2005. 25-30 marmots are slated for release in 2006. While survival rates vary, 11 of the 15 marmots released earlier this year survived to enter hibernation. The Foundation understands that recovery of the marmot is only possible if all parties involved work in a cooperative, rather than confrontational environment. They also recognize that together, concerned citizens comprise a powerful party. Therefore, the Foundation operates a strong public education and fundraising program. In addition to raising awareness of the marmot through the media, its informative web site and unique events (we might even see it rise to celebrity as the official mascot of the 2010 Winter Olympics – a lobbying effort is underway), the Foundation runs a highly successful “Adopt-a-Marmot Club” that truly engages citizens in the recovery effort.

Timber companies have provided substantial financial support to the restoration effort, but the plan does not mandate any changes in logging practices. Vancouver Island marmots live almost entirely on private land, so there is actually no mechanism to force such changes. According to Dr. Bryant, we’re also too late. “Close to 90% of the original forest cover has been removed. Changing the forest practice over the remaining 10% of the forest is not going to change the larger landscape picture. For me, the question has always been twofold. One: can we baby step marmots through the next 20-30 years while the landscape recovers? And two: will we be smarter next time [when the new forests mature].” Dr. Bryant remains hopeful. So do we. To lend your support by making a donation to the Foundation or adopting a Vancouver Island marmot, visit www.marmots.org.

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