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Vancouver Island marmot goes the distance for 'love' in historic event

Jul 31 2012

In what’s being called a historic event, a Vancouver Island marmot that was born in captivity and released on Mount Washington has made an eight-kilometre trek to find a mate.

This “natural dispersal” occurs in the wild but it’s the first time a captive-born marmot has exhibited this kind of behaviour, said Viki Jackson, executive director of the Marmot Recovery Foundation.

“It’s pretty historic,” Jackson said Monday.

“How they find each other is a great mystery. Sometimes they go right past a female that happens to be there ... and they’ll go 27 kilometres farther to find someone else.”

The chocolate brown, housecat-size member of the rodent family lives only on Vancouver Island and is the most endangered of 14 species of marmots around the world.

In 1998, there were only about 30 left so the Marmot Recovery Foundation was formed and a captive-breeding program got underway. Last year, the wild population at various alpine colonies was about 350.

The goal of the foundation is to have 500 to 600 marmots living in the wild.

It’s not yet known how many marmots were born in the wild. But Jackson hopes numbers compare to last year, when 17 pups were born on Green Island west of Nanaimo and another 17 were born on Mount Washington.

A total of 22 pups were born in captivity this spring and 32 adults have been released into the wild.

Last year, fewer than 10 of the 85 marmots that were released survived the winter. To cut mortality this year, the released marmots will spend their first winter at Mount Washington, where humans are nearby to offer supplemental feed and scare away predators.

Also, marmots are being shifted from well-populated colonies  to sparser ones.

The numbers of marmots on the south Island are increasing and the plan is to leave them alone and see what happens.

The colonies on the central and northern Island colonies are still in trouble and need careful monitoring, Jackson said.

The recovery efforts have been funded by Timberwest, Island Timberlands and the provincial government, which each contribute $65,000 annually.

But the province has not confirmed it will come up with the money this year, which is a concern.

“It’s critical that government stays in because it keeps the coalition together,” Jackson said.

Public donations, another important funding source, have dropped off. There’s a perception that marmots are now doing well and don’t need more help, Jackson said.

“But it’s like flying halfway to the moon,” he said.

“Until they’re secure, they’re not secure. The marmots have not recovered yet and until they [have], they’re vulnerable.”

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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