A decades-long initiative to save one of Canada’s most endangered mammals is paying dividends.
In 2003, the population of Vancouver Island marmots had fallen to just 30 known animals, with the species on the verge of extinction.
The species only lives in the alpine meadows of Vancouver Island’s central mountains, and is facing a number of threats including climate change and habitat loss.
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“They’re the only mammal that’s endemic to B.C., that lives here and nowhere else in the world, and they have been living on this island for probably two million years,” explained Adam Taylor, executive director of the Marmot Recovery Foundation.
“Unfortunately, beginning some time in the late ’80s … the population really crashed.”
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The prospect of losing the species kicked off a recovery effort that involved the non-profit sector, the B.C. government, and even zoos in Calgary and Toronto.
Working with a captive stock, biologists and volunteers have been breeding the marmots, then painstakingly transporting them on foot or by helicopter into their natural habitat for release.
Malcolm McAdie, captive breeding coordinator for the foundation, said those efforts are paying off.
“For the first time in a decade we’re at over 300 wild marmots,” he told Global News.
“We were at the point where the marmots were really kind of circling the drain and faced with extinction — the numbers we have (now) gives a lot of flexibility and options to manage them appropriately and continue into the future with a viable population.”
Marmots gone wild
The new tally is an increase in the population of 100 animals over 2022, which was also a bad breeding year.
The foundation released 52 marmots this year, while 59 pups were born in the wild.
McAdie said there have been other positive signs as well, including the wild marmots establishing several new colonies on their own.
“It shows the effects of the recovery program are working, and these are really strong conservation gains,” said Vancouver Island University biology professor Jamie Gorrell.
Gorrell said the captive breeding population has been critical to helping to slowly bolster the population of wild marmots, edging them closer to the point where they can be self-sustaining.
“Long-term we need to be really vigilant, we don’t know a lot about how this population could respond,” he said.
“We don’t know who the fathers of these pups are, we don’t know what the genetic diversity of the population looks like, we don’t know how these pups may survive to then produce pups of their own, and what the consequences of that will be for the next generation.”
Taylor said despite the progress, the species’ future remains balanced on a knife edge.
“We are still a long way from being done with this species, its still one of the most endangered mammal species on the planet,” he said.
“Three hundred individuals in the wild is incredibly endangered. But we have come a tremendous way.”
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