>>Endangered Species

Last Stand

The Vancouver Island marmot is among the world's most endangered and compelling animals—a counterpart, in rarity and cuteness, to China's giant pandas. No wonder an unlikely coalition that includes everyone from schoolchildren to a ski resort is making a last-ditch effort to save it.

By Alex Markels

The highly endangered Vancouver Island marmot is the rarest of the world's 14 marmot species.
Photograph by David Liittschwager

It's perfect marmot-watching weather. But Thelma is playing shy this cool summer afternoon on Canada's Vancouver Island, likely hiding in her nest box high in a subalpine meadow filled with purple phlox and blue lupine. Perhaps she's sitting just below the summit of Green Mountain, a rocky peak reaching 4,600 feet above the Pacific Ocean to the west and mainland British Columbia to the east. Or maybe Thelma is burrowing beneath the boulder-strewn hillside with her mate, Hooper. Either way, the rare Vancouver Island marmot—one of the world's most endangered species—seems as elusive as ever. Andrew Bryant and a team of researchers patiently comb the slopes, certain the two housecat-size rodents are nearby. Aiming handheld antennae toward the mountain, Bryant, a cofounder of the Marmot Recovery Foundation and its scientific adviser, and his colleagues have picked up reassuring pulses from thumb-size transmitters implanted in the marmots' chocolate-brown bellies.

"I heard Hooper down there a bit ago," says a young biologist, pointing toward an avalanche chute. The steep, rugged landscape left by sliding rock is filled with just the sort of hiding places this reclusive creature so loves. "He's hard to spot, but my receiver says he's still down there."

If only the marmots themselves could use the tracking devices. The wild population has dropped to fewer than 30 animals, a decrease of more than 90 percent over two decades, and it is scattered far and wide across 320 square miles of the island's interior. Even at their most abundant, Vancouver Island marmots have never had an easy time finding one another to mate. Now a confusing quilt of clearcuts and service roads is making dating that much more difficult. The biological urge that periodically sends young marmots migrating from mountaintop to mountaintop has increasingly ended in lonely, unrequited love.

But the marmot's forlorn story, along with its plump, endearing form, may yet lead to its salvation. For as word of its imminent demise has spread, an unlikely coalition of marmot lovers—including everyone from biologists and families to loggers and ski resort developers—has come to the animal's rescue. Kids have helped wage a successful public relations campaign replete with children's books, stuffed animals, and marmot drawings taped to parents' refrigerator doors. Businesspeople have kicked in money and land to help create a costly captive-breeding program. Motivated by a mixture of love and enlightened self-interest, the marmot's champions are making a desperate effort to bring it back from the edge of extinction—an effort made all the more challenging by the appetite of other island animals. Just when the marmot's prospects looked most promising, predators took a big bite out of the wild population. Now the next move for the marmot protectors is one fraught with controversy.

Naturalist Edward O. Wilson describes these latest events as pure "ecological theater." His book The Future of Life details the marmot's plight, calling the animal the Canadian equivalent of China's giant panda and Australia's koala bear. "The protagonists are charismatic and the plot twists surprising, which hopefully makes the efforts to save them all the more compelling."


If history has proven anything about the marmot's star qualities, it's that it isn't the type to give up without a fight—after all, it has thousands of years of survival under its belt already, much of it through dramatic geologic and climatic change. When scientists began intensely studying the animal in the 1970s, they discovered Marmota vancouverensis—with its unique chestnut and white coloring—to be distinct from the 14 other nonthreatened marmot species that live throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. It was separated from its closest cousins—the hoary and Olympic marmots—when an ice bridge that linked Vancouver Island with Canada's mainland melted about 10,000 years ago. Over time this marmot has survived periods of cold so intense that much of the land was encased in ice, driving other island animals, such as mountain goats, to extinction.

But while it persevered, the Vancouver Island marmot never flourished, and its eventual scarcity—a mere 68 individuals were recorded between 1896 and 1972—prompted the Canadian government to declare it an endangered species in 1978. Then things started to look up. Between 1981 and 1984 annual counts nearly doubled, to about 235 animals.
The reason for the baby boom was, at first, a mystery. After all, the marmots' surroundings had undergone radical change in recent decades, and not for the better. Chainsaws had opened gaping holes in the once-pristine conifer canopy, and logging roads had zigzagged up and down the mountains as far as the eye could see.

But as it turns out, the clearcuts, which mimic the animal's favorite subalpine meadows, aren't such an eyesore to marmots. When, at about two years of age, a young marmot leaves its parents' mountaintop colony to strike out on its own, it first moves down the mountain and then works its way back up until it reaches another subalpine meadow. But if the marmot comes across a clearcut while still on the lower slopes—a nice, open place with plenty to eat—it thinks, notes Bryant, "it's reached the Promised Land."

That was the case with many of the marmots tallied in the mid-1980s, which had moved into recent clearcuts and the soft soil next to logging roads. Some had even burrowed beside newly cut ski runs at Mount Washington, an island ski resort. "Everyone thought it was a win-win situation," says Dave Lindsay, a TimberWest Forest Corp. biologist, who tried to ensure that the company's logging had less impact on marmots. Once, after they took up residence in a road slated for rehabilitation, Lindsay worked with government biologists and a backhoe operator to find the animals a new home. "We had excess logs and rocks, so we said, 'Why not build them marmot condos?' " he recalls. "The next year the marmots moved in and had pups."

Ski resort workers at Mount Washington also grew fond of the marmots they had spied on the mountain. When they observed the animals taking to cleared areas, "we also started cleaning up some old burrows we found," says Peter Gibson, the resort's president. "And when we did, they came back."

Unfortunately, this blissful symbiosis didn't last long, and census counts of the animals began to plummet in the early 1990s. By 1997 "something was very wrong," says Bryant. There were then a mere 102 marmots in the wild.

Scientists were once again stumped. Genetic research showed that inbreeding wasn't to blame, and disease wasn't found among marmots captured in the wild. Although logging had continued, it had also created new habitat, and the high, lonely subalpine meadows that the marmots most preferred remained largely unaltered. The animals' primary predators—cougars, wolves, and golden eagles—were still a threat, but the marmots had suffered their attacks through the millennia. Why should things be different this time around? No one was sure.


The marmot's luckiest break came from a surprising savior: Logging company MacMillan Bloedel, now a part of Weyerhaeuser, put up $1 million in 1997 to get the Marmot Recovery Foundation off the ground. Although employees already had a soft spot for the marmot, the reasons for MacMillan's donation—by far the most generous committed to the recovery effort at the time—were more pragmatic.

As one of the largest private landowners on Vancouver Island, the company had recently borne the brunt of angry protesters, who, trying to draw attention to widespread clearcuts, had blocked logging roads and mounted an international boycott of the company's wood products. Meanwhile, pending legislation would soon allow the Canadian government to hold MacMillan legally responsible for protecting endangered animals living on its land. Since much of the marmot's habitat sits smack in the middle of the loggers' private forests, "we had the most to lose if nothing was done," explains Linda Coady, a former company executive who helped form the Marmot Recovery Foundation. "If something didn't happen fast, the marmot was going to be a lost cause. And we'd be the ones everyone would blame."

So in 1997 MacMillan also hired consultant Tony Barrett, a former chief financial officer of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, to help the foundation draw up a formal business plan, including a blueprint for a captive-breeding program to regenerate the population. It was among the first recovery programs in Canada to team private, public, and community interests, and its goal was simple: to raise and release about 400 marmots during the next 15 years.

Six marmots were soon taken from the wild and sent to the Toronto Zoo; not long after, marmots were also shipped off to the Calgary Zoo and the Mountain View Conservation & Breeding Society near Vancouver. The team fashioned a new recovery plan based on advice from the Russian Academy of Sciences, the International Marmot Network, and scientists who had helped repopulate marmots in Europe. They carefully chose animals for captive breeding to help improve the marmot's genetic base, and developed ways to maintain their natural behaviors when they were eventually released into the wild.

Concerned that captivity might rob the marmot of defensive instincts, researchers brought in stuffed cougars and wolves and played recordings of their growls, as well as warning calls from marmots in the wild. "The idea was to document what, if anything, had been lost in captivity in the way of antipredator behavior," says Daniel T. Blumstein, a behavioral ecologist and marmot expert with the University of California at Los Angeles, who led the project.

Even so the wild population continued to dwindle, so the team redoubled its efforts to support the marmots, surgically implanting transmitters to better track the animals' movements and dispatching more researchers into the field. They even played matchmaker, transplanting animals to nearly extinct colonies. "We'd go out in the spring, see who needed a mate, and play cupid," Bryant says. On Heather Mountain, where the population had fallen to a solitary female, "we airlifted in a male, and they had pups!"

A grassroots promotional campaign—featuring irresistible marmot souvenirs such as posters and plush, stuffed animals—further dramatized the marmot's plight and helped galvanize community support. Local politicians declared May 1 to be Marmot Day. A local visitors' guide was named The Mount Washington Marmot, its pages highlighting the recovery effort in every issue. The area's largest newspaper made it an even bigger cause célèbre, inspiring people to write out checks; 1,100 of those pledged an annual gift of $120 in exchange for an official Adopt-a-Marmot program certificate and regular recovery updates. Donations from the public have since swelled to $400,000 a year, making up nearly half of the foundation's $900,000 annual budget. "It's become a point of pride for people," says Viki Wilson, the foundation's executive director. "As island folk, they really identify with it."

"We've already come so far. Thousands of people around the world now care about an animal that none of them had even heard of 10 years ago."

No one more than Bryant, whose round, bearded face bears a not-so-distant resemblance to the object of his affections. He oversees the group's robust website (marmots.org), where visitors are treated to classroom exercises and audio of the marmot's whistling call. He hopes that efforts under way to have the marmot named the mascot of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver are successful.

Ski resort operators at Mount Washington were certainly won over, providing land on their slopes for a captive-breeding facility and also building an interpretive center to help showcase the recovery program. Their motivation is mostly altruistic, although Gibson notes that the effort has paid off in more tangible ways: "It showed we could be trusted." A project to double the number of residential units at Mount Washington was recently approved, owing in part to the resort's zealous support of the marmots. "There wasn't one person who spoke out against us at the final public meeting," he says.

Even as the wild marmots still wandered from clearcut to meadow in search of mates, the relationships prearranged in captivity began to blossom. Four years ago officials at the Calgary Zoo announced the birth of eight marmot pups. The zoo's breeders built holding pens and nest boxes to mimic the marmots' underground burrows, and installed infrared cameras, allowing the animal's behavior underground—where they spend 70 percent of their lives—to be observed for the first time. The researchers discovered that strong bonds between mates are undermined if males are moved between pens during mating season, and that females housed too closely together may not successfully reproduce. "We know far more about their mating behavior today than ever before," says Malcolm McAdie, the foundation's veterinarian. "That's helped tremendously with breeding." The proof is in the nursery: 41 pups born since 2000.


Yet for all the successes, the marmot's struggle continues to be an uphill one. Not long after Bryant's visit to Green Mountain last summer, the signals from Thelma and Hooper—along with those from four other marmots—stopped broadcasting. With the help of the transmitters, researchers were able to learn where and how the animals died: Remains found near their burrows suggest cougars killed them. Predators had killed six marmots the previous year as well.

This unfortunate plot twist was devastating to the recovery team, which had, only a few months earlier, freed Thelma and two other marmots from captivity and released them in the wild. "Losing so many marmots was a huge setback," says Bryant. "But we think we've finally found a smoking gun."

He and his colleagues speculate that the dramatic landscape changes from logging have altered not only marmot behavior but also that of predators. Cougars and wolves have apparently found easy pickings among marmots resettled in clearcuts at lower elevations, where newly planted trees and a lack of boulders deprive them of hiding places. Stalking the hills along logging roads, predators may also be able to hunt over a wider swath of terrain. Then, of course, marmots raised in captivity may have lost some of their natural fears, making them sitting ducks when they're released in the wild.

"We'd go out in the spring, see who needed a mate, and play cupid. We airlifted in a male, and they had pups!"

Armed with new statistics showing that more than three-quarters of marmots die from predator attacks, the recovery team is again appealing to the community for help. This time, a shepherding program sends volunteers into the mountains to watch over the marmots, and motion-sensitive alarms and fladry (colorful flags and streamers whose flapping movements act as scarecrows to predators) may be set up near the marmots' burrows. The team has also asked hunters—permitted to pursue cougars and wolves during a legal hunting season—to concentrate on areas closest to the surviving marmot colonies.

Most of the recovery team's efforts to protect the marmots have been directed toward terrestrial predators, so it came as a surprise to both the foundation and the public when, this past March, it was revealed that British Columbia's Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection had allowed six golden eagles to be killed over the past two years. Though golden eagles are protected under both Canadian law and the International Migratory Bird Treaty, the province is charged with safeguarding endangered species and has the authority to hunt the birds as a predator-control measure.

Predator reduction has proven a gut-wrenching turn in the story. The exact size of the island's wolf and cougar population is extremely controversial, but evidence indicates it has dropped in recent years, following a decline in the animals’ primary prey, black-tailed deer. "We all want to see the marmot survive and recover," says Chris Genovali, executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Society, which champions the cause of British Columbia's coastal old-growth forests and native wolves. "But there's serious argument over whether to place the blame for the marmot's condition on [predators]. The ultimate reason for the marmot's decline isn't predators, it's clear-cutting."

Human activity is indeed the root cause of the marmot's troubles, acknowledges Bryant. "Because of that, we have a moral obligation to restore the balance," he says. "We have to do some short-term harm in order to do long-term good." There is no official estimate of how many wolves and cougars will need to be killed in order to protect the wild marmot colonies; no further hunts of golden eagles are planned.

"We've already come so far," Bryant says. "Thousands of people around the world now care about an animal that none of them had even heard of 10 years ago. We've gotten the landowners who contributed to the problem to help fix it. We've created a captive-breeding program that has prevented extinction. And we're in a position to start restoring the wild population, which is nothing short of a miracle."

Most endangered species never get this second chance, notes the naturalist E. O. Wilson in The Future of Life. "As habitats shrink, species decline wholesale in range and abundance. They slip down the Red List ratchet, and the vast majority depart without special notice." But marmots are not most species. "They tell an amazing story about persevering in the face of adversity," Wilson adds. "I'd be greatly surprised if anyone this side of Saddam Hussein wouldn't support their recovery."

Alex Markels, a frequent contributor to The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report, wrote "The Sky's the Limit" in the November-December 2001 Audubon.




© 2004 National Audubon Society

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Adopt a marmot with a monthly donation of $10. In exchange, you'll receive a personalized adoption certificate, a full-color poster of a Vancouver Island marmot, and the official recovery project newsletter. The funds go toward field research and captive-breeding programs. Contact the Marmot Recovery Foundation, Box 2332, Station A, Nanaimo, B. C., Canada V9R 6X9; www.marmots.org.