Vancouver Island Marmot

Marmot recovery remarkable, fragile

Sure the Vancouver Island marmot is cute.

Sure the Vancouver Island marmot is cute.

But that hasn’t helped the little guy much in the singles scene.

Neither has the new wardrobe, visits to the gym, nor the latest dating tips from e-Harmony and GQ.

But what has worked for Vancouver Island’s fuzziest icon is the help and support of his own personal love doctor, Axel Moehrenschlager.

To be clear, Moehrenschlager politely but firmly rejects the love doctor title, and generally leaves hands-on work with the pint-sized rodents to the other zookeepers and scientists at the Calgary Zoo’s Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre.

But as the zoo’s director of conservation and science, Moehrenschlager is ultimately responsible for 13 marmot yearlings that have been released on Vancouver Island in recent weeks as part of an ongoing — and highly successful — captive breeding program.

“I think it is one of the most dramatic recoveries for an endangered species in such a relatively short time anywhere,” he said. “I think the primary reason why it’s been working well is the level of co-operation between the different agencies. It’s been exceptionally good.”

The Calgary Zoo got its first Vancouver Island marmots in the late 1990s when the population was one hungry wolf pack away from extinction. At the instigation of the provincial government, spurred by a small group of Island conservationists, a handful of marmots was taken from the wild and paired up under the watchful eyes of scientists at a handful of locations.

The number of pups delivered in Calgary varies from year to year; four have arrived in 2016. Once they are a year old, the zoo turns them over to the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation. They are quarantined for a while at a facility on Mount Washington to ensure their health, given a surgically implanted tracker, then released — hopefully to find mates and add to a growing number of pups born in the wild.

When the first breeding program pups were introduced back into the wild in 2003, there were about 30 marmots living on Vancouver Island. That number is now estimated at about 300.

The goal is ultimately to get the species downgraded from the national ‘endangered’ list to the list of ‘special concern,’ which basically means it will have reached a point of self-sustainability, defined by trends of steady growth and the ability to rebound from the unexpected.

Unique to Vancouver Island, the marmot is native to the open spaces of the high country along the island’s central and south-central spine.

In some ways, the Island’s marmot recovery effort may have become a victim of its own success. As the wild population has increased, the numbers in captivity have dwindled from 177 to 43. The main reason is reduced funding coming in from both government and private sources to maintain the captive breeders and transition their offspring. The foundation is looking to find more partners and new sources of cash.

“We are definitely trying to reinvigorate the captive breeding program,” Cheyney Jackson, the field coordinator for the Marmot Recovery Foundation said.

Moehrenschlager said Canada, as a land rich in both resources and space, needs to use its assets to set a conservation example for the rest of the world.

“One of the things I think about is that if we as Canadians let uniquely Canadian species become extinct…we have no credibility or authority to say anything about the species of other countries.

“We need to be leaders.”

john.mckinley@blackpress.ca