Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed marmots are digging their first burrows on Vancouver Island’s Mount Washington.
A group of yearlings were released into the wild on the popular ski hill Wednesday. The four Vancouver Island marmots were set free on Comox Valley hill’s “Invitation” ski run, after being bred through the Marmot Recovery Foundation’s ongoing efforts to replenish the endangered species.
The foundation releases Vancouver Island marmots every year at Mount Washington. That’s because the rare rodent thrives in empty meadows — which ski runs transform into in the summer time — and high elevations.
Executive director of the foundation Adam Taylor said the group is forming a “wild marmot factory” at Mount Washington. The program traps wild marmots, as well as breeds them in captivity and releases them back into the wilderness.
The species — endemic to Vancouver Island and one of the rarest mammals in the world — has been near extinction for more than 20 years. When the population was lowest, in 2003, nearly a dozen of the estimated total 30 alive were counted at Mount Washington. As of 2021 the population had rebounded to more than 250 on about 20 Vancouver Island mountains.
Taylor said that’s reason to believe the animals thrive in the area. The environment also needs them, according to Taylor, because the rodent turns-over soil.
“They are constantly digging up new spots,” Taylor said. “There isn’t really any other mammal on Vancouver Island that plays that role.”
Whether its digging escape tunnels, or burrowing three meters underground to hibernate, the Island rodent releases new nutrients.
Taylor said there is also another benefit to this branch of conservation work.
“These marmots are disgustingly cute.”
The director often works with pups. For best chance of survival, the pups are bred in captivity and raised for one year. One reason for this is that existing wild colonies are most likely to accept young marmots.
The Marmot Recovery Foundation has been breeding and releasing Vancouver Island marmots for 20 years. Funding comes from donations, as well as from the Province of B.C. and Mosaic Forest Management.
“To be blunt, without those, this species would be extinct.”