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Island marmots poised for recovery



Most threatened specie in Canada down to 25 wild

Vancouver Island marmots are tough. They live above the tree line in a climate where food supplies are sparse, and where there’s little cover to protect them from predators. The snow hits them first and leaves them last, and so they hibernate about 230 days a year.

But when humans began to log and develop the land around them, marmot groups became isolated from one another, and because of a lack of breeding partners, they began to die out. According to Andrew Bryant, who has been studying the species for the past 14 years, there are only about 25 Vancouver Island marmots left in the wild.

"In the ’70s and ’80s, they probably lost about 85 per cent of their natural forest cover," says Bryant, Chief Scientist for the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Project. "Now the real question is whether we can baby sit the marmots for the next 20 to 25 years to give that habitat time to heal. So far it looks encouraging."

Bryant will be in Whistler on Nov. 29, where he will be giving a slideshow for the Whistler Naturalists Society at Millennium Place as part of their annual general meeting.

"The story is not just about marmots, but about scientific discovery – how did we come to know what we think we know about Vancouver Island marmots. Not much was known about this species until the 1970s, and few people have ever even seen one.

"It was detective work, wrong turns, obstacles. We learned about the marmots, and what we learned is going to help us fix the problem."

While humanity hasn’t had a lot of success in bringing species back from the edge of extinction, Bryant believes that the processes that he and his colleagues are using to save the Vancouver Island marmot are applicable to other endangered species, as far as studying behaviour, environment, food sources and social interaction among the species.

Beyond the scientific, the marmot recovery project could also provide a model for co-operation between the government, big business, and the public. The group has raised over $5 million for its activities, including a captive breeding program that is producing marmots that will eventually be released into the wild. There are currently about 47 Vancouver Island marmots in captivity, including animals in the Metro Toronto Zoo and Calgary Zoo. A "halfway house" has also been created at the top of the Mount Washington ski area to adapt captive animals to the alpine environment.

Because the logging happened in a brief period of time, the interference was kept to a minimum and the vegetation is returning at more or less a constant rate.

"The conditions for this species making a recovery are excellent, and the amount of interest this project has received has been nothing short of overwhelming. People are not going to let this species go," says Bryant.

Tickets to see Andrew Bryant are $7 for adults; children are admitted free. The Whistler Naturalists AGM takes place from 6 to 7:30 p.m., and the slideshow starts at 8 p.m.