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Very rare Vancouver Island Marmot

Vancouver Island Marmot

Marmota vancouverensis

The Vancouver Island marmot is certainly the most famous animal on Vancouver Island, and perhaps is even the most famous endangered animal in Canada. Threatened by habitat loss, wolves, cougars, and natural attrition, today a majority of these animals live in captivity. It is estimated that as of early 2008, approximately 90 individuals existed in the wild, and that 160 were in captive breeding programs. Intensive efforts are underway to rebuild their population and re-release captive bred animals into the wild, but so far these programs have met with mixed results.


Description


About the size of a house cat and weighing around 5 kg pre-hibernation, the Vancouver Island Marmot is the largest member of the squirrel family. They have a deep brown body, with distinctive white patches on the face and chest, most prominently on the nose. Newborns are almost all black. They are a group living animal, living in family colonies of 2-7, and when a colony gets too big, residents will break off to find new habitat. They hibernate for seven months of the year in dens to avoid the cold season, and re-emerge in April, at approximately two thirds their pre-hibernation weights.


The marmots inhabit established sub-alpine meadows where they can find their preferred foods; grasses, sedges, and herbs. Because of the similarity between the alpine meadow and clear-cuts, the marmots will often colonize the freshly logged areas when looking for new habitat. However, many of the plants they eat are not available in fresh clear-cuts, and scientists believe this could be one of the reasons there is greater mortality in these areas.


Vancouver Island Range


Once distributed in many sub-alpine territories throughout south-central Vancouver Island, the marmot is now restricted to a few select sites. The remaining wild populations occur in two locations: Mt. Washington (10%), and the Nanaimo Lakes region (90%). Introductions have taken place by the various conservation groups working to rehabilitate this species, and releases have occurred at previously inhabited sites such as Strathcona Park and Mt. Cain.

Historically, these animals were much more abundant, with sightings of up to 48 individuals in one day on mountains near Cowichan Lake reported as recently as 1984.


Major Threats


With population numbers so low, the Vancouver Marmot Faces a twofold threat from predation and habitat loss. With only 90 in the wild, each member represents more than one percent of the total remaining population. At these levels, natural predation becomes a serious problem, and many efforts, including outright kills, to control the wolf and cougar predation have been made.

Habitat loss continues to be a grave concern for the marmots. Only 10% of their overall population lives on protected land, with the rest residing in active logging territory. The logging of their natural habitat has concentrated the animals, removing many local colonies from the map, and putting the remainder at risk to disease, inbreeding, and overcrowding. Making the problem even worse is that as areas are logged, the marmots will often move into the clear-cuts, as the logged areas resemble their natural habitat. The clearing is short-lived however, and as natural forest succession takes place, the marmots are once again forced out, and are given insufficient time to set up sustainable populations.

Overall, this species is at grave risk of extinction. Fortunately it has the benefit of being a high profile case, and thus is well funded and monitored. Ongoing restoration efforts have seen some success, and even if the wild population is extirpated, there remain enough animals in captivity to likely facilitate a recovery at a later date.


Why they are Important on Vancouver Island


As Canada’s most endangered species, the Vancouver Island Marmot is an important hub for species restoration efforts. Much of the marmot’s territory plays host to a variety of unique life, some of it also at risk, and if this high profile species’ territory becomes permanently protected, many more species will benefit.

 

Web site ©: The Institute for Coastal and Oceans Research (ICOR) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia Canada.