They sleep all winter, seek out the morning sun and like to burrow underground.
And although they hold the unenviable status of Canada’s most endangered mammal, Vancouver Island marmots are, if not thriving, at least taking steps toward recovery.
Those steps are due largely to a captive breeding program that involves facilities in three provinces working together to help the furry rodents endure for future generations. The Wilder Institute at the Calgary Zoo on Thursday announced the birth of 14 marmot pups, the first to be born at the Archibald Biodiversity Centre, a breeding and research facility that opened last year.
At the Toronto Zoo this year, there are three litters of marmots, numbering two, four and five pups, for a total of 11. The litters are from the same parents as last year, zookeeper Ayesha Beyersbergen said in an e-mail.
Pups at both the Calgary and Toronto facilities are expected to stay at their respective homes until the fall, when some will be picked to stay in the breeding program and others will be transported to the species’ home territory on Vancouver Island’s Mount Washington. There, the non-profit Marmot Recovery Foundation runs a third facility, the Tony Barrett Mount Washington Marmot Recovery Centre, where the young marmots will have a supervised hibernation before being released into the wild the following spring.
This past week, the Marmot Recovery Foundation began its planned summer release of 52 marmots into the wild, starting with 12 animals released on Mount Washington and another 40 scheduled to be released at up to 16 locations on Vancouver Island in coming weeks.
The new pups and the spring release are positive news for Marmota vancouverensis. Known for its chocolate-brown fur and whistling alarm, the marmot was designated as endangered in 1978 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and is also listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act, which took effect in 2003. In 2004, fewer than 30 marmots were believed to exist in the wild, according to the Marmot Recovery Foundation; there are now about 200 marmots in roughly 20 colonies on Vancouver Island.
The Wilder Institute has been involved with the marmot conservation breeding program since 1998.
Its new breeding facility features soundproofed walls that allow marmots to sleep undisturbed, an elevated mound where they can socialize and is designed so the animals can catch the morning sun.
The facility also includes an outdoor area where the marmots can dig underground. The creatures took to that feature quickly, burrowing into the earth within a day of being introduced to the space, said Caitlin Slade, manager of animal care at the Wilder Institute. That means more pups might be counted in coming days or weeks, because some animals may have given birth underground and have yet to emerge with their young.
In addition to Mount Washington, the Marmot Recovery Foundation has released marmots in Strathcona Provincial Park, Nanaimo Lakes and Clayoquot Plateau Provincial Park, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Since 2003, 587 captive-bred marmots have been released into the wild, according to the group’s 2022 annual report. Some of those released marmots have gone on to breed and have litters of their own, although others have been scooped up by predators. There are 137 marmots in captivity, including 33 or more potential breeding pairs for 2023, the report said.
The exact sites of this year’s releases have yet to be determined, said foundation executive director Adam Taylor. A busy wildfire season in B.C. has reduced the availability of helicopters, making it more challenging to get marmots and their human escorts to remote alpine meadows. But all of the 40 remaining animals will be released in coming weeks to multiple sites, reflecting the program’s goals of reducing risk from hazards such as disease, wildfire or floods by establishing numerous colonies in different locations.
He sees the marmots’ tentative recovery as a hopeful sign for other endangered species, in Canada and around the world.
“We can bring these species back,” Mr. Taylor said.
“We don’t have to resign ourselves to a world that is biologically impoverished. But the other lesson is that it isn’t going to be easy. We’ve been at this for 20 years now. We’ve got a lot more work to do. It’s not going to be easy, but it is possible.”