'A thrilling sign': Researchers discover secret colony of highly endangered marmots on Vancouver Island

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There are about 200 Vancouver Island marmot in the wild, up from a low of 27 in 2003. (Marmot Recovery Foundation - image credit)
There are about 200 Vancouver Island marmot in the wild, up from a low of 27 in 2003. (Marmot Recovery Foundation - image credit)

Researchers and conservationists are celebrating after the discovery of a group of Vancouver Island marmots that signals a great step forward in the recovery of the highly endangered species.

Adam Taylor, executive director of the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation, said the discovery of the colony complete with adults, yearlings and pups in Strathcona Park was "a thrilling sign."

"We've been waiting years to see this," Taylor said.

The Vancouver Island marmot is endemic to the island, and only lives in the high mountains in open alpine habitat. Their populations have plummeted in past decades because of habitat loss, reaching a low of 27 in 2003.

Because of captive breeding programs in the Toronto Zoo, Calgary Zoo and Mount Washington, there are now around 200 individuals in the wild population.

Taylor says he believes this colony — which has 10 to 12 individuals — is descended from marmots reintroduced to Marble Meadows, about a kilometre away.

Marmots typically disperse away from their natal colonies, but Strathcona Park has proved tough terrain for the species. They must build massive metres-deep burrows to hibernate in the winter and find enough food to build up the fat layers they need for hibernation. The marmots must also evade hungry predators.

"Our expectations have been low, to be blunt. It's been a long time of trying to reintroduce these marmots, trying to reestablish colonies that we knew about," said Taylor.

To see the marmots disperse on their own, pick their own habitat, and managed to successfully establish themselves — and the next generation — is incredible, he said.

While there have been three new colonies discovered this year, Taylor said the species is still critically endangered.

"We're still talking about just over 200 individuals in the wild," he said.

The summer has been difficult. Like many other species, the marmot has been hit by the drought, which has curtailed their much needed vegetation for the winter months. August and September are also typically dangerous months for predator activity.

Taylor hopes that the marmots continue their successful dispersal, moving from one colony to the next, reproducing successfully and otherwise thriving.

"This isn't the end of the road for recovery for this species. It's a good step, though," he said.

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