Future of the Vancouver Island Marmot Looks Brighter Thanks to New Study

The Calgary Zoo along with the Marmot Recovery Foundation (MRF), the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the University of Washington recently published a study that could help take the critically endangered Vancouver Island marmot species from just surviving to thriving.

The recovery of Vancouver Island marmots relies heavily on conservation techniques such as breeding and release programs to bolster their population. Currently numbering 250 in the wild, up from a low of 30 individuals, this study’s novel approach to releasing marmots is expected to greatly improve their survival rates compared to the conventional methods used in the past. This means that more marmots should survive to become breeders and helping the wild population to rebuild much more quickly.

The study tested the idea of first releasing marmots into high survival areas, such as the Mount Washington ski area for one year. The marmots were exposed to wild conditions and adapted while learning key survival behaviours such as foraging, finding shelter and avoiding predators before being transferred to their final destination, which in this case was Strathcona Provincial Park. Termed a “stepping-stone” approach to conservation translocations, this strategy serves as one model for how captive-bred individuals of many species could be managed in order to increase their impact on recovery efforts.

“Conservation of species is often a long and complex journey and the evaluation of different management strategies along the way is critical to increase the effectiveness of our actions and make the key decisions needed for ongoing species recovery,” says Natasha Lloyd, Conservation Research Manager with the Calgary Zoo. “All of our partners, including the MRF, USGS and the University of Washington who were involved in authoring this study, have helped to collaboratively piece together critical information that we will use to help marmot numbers continue to recover,” she says.

“We’re thrilled to get these results, which give us a much better understanding of how our conservation efforts are impacted by the techniques we use. Our goal is to give each marmot we reintroduce to the wild the best possible chance for success. The Foundation has been implementing the stepping-stone release approach for all captive-bred marmots released in Strathcona for the past two years and the challenge now is to find ways to benefit more marmots in the future,” says Cheyney Jackson, Marmot Recovery Foundation. “This project was truly a team effort and serves as an example of how conservation practice can be strengthened through collaboration. It speaks to the value of monitoring reintroductions, asking questions about the results, and being creative in designing and testing improvements.”

The Vancouver Island marmot continues to face threats such as natural predation from cougars, wolves and golden eagles and disruption of their hibernation and breeding cycles through climate warming. The marmot is also an umbrella species, meaning that by conserving them other species that share that same habitat also benefit.

Source: Calgary Zoo