Not just another hoary tale
The search for Whistler’s disappearing marmots
By Bob Brett
Andrew Bryant greets me by thrusting a marmot into my hands. After getting over the initial surprise, I have to admit a marmot makes a surprisingly good plush toy.
Marmots are unquestionably cute. Live ones are massively photogenic, not to mention kind enough to stay still for photos. The toy marmot is also cute: a ball of fake fur with a winsome smile. The reason for its existence isn’t something to smile about, though. It’s being sold as part of a fund-raising effort to save the critically endangered Vancouver Island marmot.
Of the world’s 14 marmot species, six live in North America. Two are abundant to our east: yellow-bellied marmots and the ubiquitous groundhog. Our local species, hoary marmots (or "hoaries"), ranges from Alaska and the Yukon south to Montana.
The remaining three species are endemics, which means they’re restricted to a very small range. One is found only in northern Alaska and another only in the Olympic Mountains west of Seattle. The third, the Vancouver Island marmot, survives in increasingly few high-elevation locations on Vancouver Island. Endemic species are particularly vulnerable to extinction because their populations are so concentrated.
In one of life’s ironies, humans place a high value on some species only when they’re close to extinction, and the now-valued Vancouver Island marmots have the dubious distinction of being as close to extinction as any animal in North America. Despite the efforts of many dedicated scientists, the population has fallen from about 300 in the 1980s to as few as 36 individuals today. It’s a race against time to help them recover and Andrew Bryant works full-time in the fight.
Bryant is chief scientist for the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Project. The dollars raised by selling plush toys are added to funding from logging companies and the government, all of which help support efforts to bring the Vancouver Island marmot back from the brink of extinction.
The situation is so dire that marmots are being bred in zoos to be released back into the wild, a technique called captive breeding. Although there aren’t yet enough captive animals to start re-introducing them to the wild, they’re the best hope for the future. The ski hill at Mount Washington has now jumped on board and will be assisting future re-introduction efforts on its slopes.
Why was an expert on endangered marmots visiting Whistler in September? Bryant was here to help us investigate reports of a population decline in our local marmots. Even though there are thousands more hoary marmots than Vancouver Island marmots, Whistler hikers and mountain staff noticed fewer than usual this summer. Hordes of hoaries should have been whistling up a storm but the mountains were suspiciously quiet.
So are there really fewer marmots than in the past? No one has solid data for our area and much of the evidence centres on the loss of well-known colonies which are invariably in high-visibility locations. Among the famous losses are the colony just above the base of the Solar Coaster chairlift on Blackcomb and the unflappable marmots who made Whistler Mountain’s Roundhouse home. Those marmots haven’t been seen for at least a couple of years.
The prospect of the Whistler alpine without marmots would have seemed unbelievable to anyone only a few years ago. There were just so many everywhere you hiked — marmots perched on rocks, mock wrestling, or foraging in the talus or meadows. You couldn’t help but notice all the burrows, especially in wildflower meadows where the rodents’ excavations left huge porches at the burrow entrances.
Heather Beresford led hiking tours on Blackcomb Mountain in the summers of 1988 and 1989 and was used to seeing about 12 a day: "In the same place, at the same time, even on exactly the same rock." Most of her sightings were near the top of the Catskinner Chair and on a short loop towards 7th Heaven — places where marmots were seldom seen or heard this past summer.
Arthur DeJong, now Mountain Planning and Environmental Resources Manager with Whistler-Blackcomb, started on Blackcomb 20 years ago. Part of his job in the mid-1990s was to open the 7th Heaven area up for hiking. Tough job. He had to walk repeatedly across to Lakeside Bowl and Decker tarn and suffer the twin challenges of incredible scenery and bracing mountain air. In the course of his travels, DeJong encountered countless marmots on 7th Heaven in what seems like perfect marmot habitat. Snow melts early due to a west aspect, there’s lots of early grasses and sedges for marmots to munch on, and lush wildflowers appear in mid- and late summer. But a hiker looking for marmots this year would likely have been disappointed. The burrows are still there but most are unoccupied.
Whistler Mountain also hasn’t lacked for marmots in the past. Todd Bush, President of the Whistler Alpine Club, remembers seeing four or five marmots sunning themselves on rocks by Tower 27 on the Whistler gondola until about two years ago. Lift maintenance staff on Whistler remember a huge colony at the top of the old Blue Chair but haven’t seen them lately either. And hiking guides on the mountain this year considered themselves lucky to spot one in a day.
Anecdotal reports like these are compelling but not conclusive. There would be some losses of individual colonies even if the overall population was stable, but this summer showed much more than just individual losses. Adding to the local news were reports suggesting fewer marmots had emerged from hibernation outside the Whistler-Blackcomb area as well, from places like Manning Park, Callaghan Lake, Joffre Lakes, and Garibaldi Park.
There’s only one way to be sure about population trends: baseline data to compare the present population with historic numbers. Unfortunately, no population studies have been done in our area, a problem lamented by Tom Bell, Resource Officer with B.C. Parks. "There seems to be a decrease but we’re not sure why and we don’t have any scientific evidence to tie it to," he says. "Until there is a baseline study we won’t know whether it (the decline) is a minor blip or something sustained."
Earlier this summer, Arthur DeJong decided to investigate the possible drop in the marmot population and the accompanying theories for its cause, from coyote predation to viruses to snow pack. That’s when he asked me to add a marmot survey to other ecological work I was doing on the ski hills this summer. The first thing I did was to look for published research on marmot biology. Although hoary marmots have been studied less than almost any other marmot, some basics are known.
Marmots are rodents closely related to squirrels and are not, as a former friend accused, "just rats with a good agent." As most locals know, our town and mountain is named after marmots, a.k.a. "whistlers," and the French word for groundhogs and marmots, siffleurs, is a direct translation. (It may be understandable why another nickname, "whistling pig," wasn’t chosen as the moniker of the ski resort.)
Hoaries elsewhere hibernate for about seven months between September and April, though the habits of local marmots haven’t yet been well documented. (The most recent recorded activity this year was a huge marmot seen scampering under the Big Red Chair by Michael Allen on Oct. 25.) Marmots differ from bears in that they are true hibernators. In fact, you could keep a hibernating marmot quite happy in an oxygenated refrigerator at about 5 degrees Celsius and, yes, lots of scientists find this trick quite entertaining.
The short time the marmots are awake in the summer makes their mellowness and propensity for lazing around on rocks all the more amazing. The tasks packed into four or five short months include mating, giving birth, raising pups, digging new burrows and staying off the menu of something with big teeth — all the while eating enough to pack on fat for the next exceptionally long winter nap.
Marmot species differ greatly in sociability, from the solitary groundhogs to the exceptionally sociable hoaries. In fact, it’s impossible to study a single hoary marmot without being constantly reminded of its role within its colony.
A typical colony consists of one male adult, two or three female adults, and a variable number of pups, yearlings, and two year olds. Researchers who must not have heard Trudeau’s admonition about "the state having no place in the bedrooms of the nation" have found some hoary marmots to be monogamous and others to be, shall we say, more opportunistic.
Most females give birth every second year, which gives their offspring two years of undivided attention. By their third year, some marmots disperse to new colonies while others, usually female, remain with their natal colony. Dispersing marmots sometimes travel long distances and may make cross-valley migrations. (Local naturalist Max Gotz can vouch for the peregrinations of marmots. He dug up a scientific report from 1921 in which three marmots were sighted along the railway tracks in Whistler Valley.)
Hoary marmots are pretty strict vegetarians since they always go for the salad bar unless they’re starving. This preference was confirmed in an experiment conducted by a scientist who placed beef hearts at the entrance of marmot burrows in April. (Isn’t science great?) He found marmots would nibble on the meat only if there was absolutely nothing green to eat. As soon as the snow cleared and vegetation was exposed, the beef hearts weren’t touched.
What we already know about marmots helps understand them a little but it doesn’t help answer why there are fewer marmots this year. Books can’t tell us how much the population is down, what caused the decline, or whether there is a long-term problem to be worried about.
To answer the population part of the equation, I started with a mostly low-tech approach. It was already August by the time the study started and marmot activity was already slowing down. My approach was to map as many burrows as possible and classify them by whether they looked active (active burrows wouldn’t have plants growing in the entrance and might have scat or other signs of activity). Where possible I added a little technological advantage with a handheld GPS unit, a system which gives map co-ordinates accurate to within a couple of metres. Whenever I was lucky enough to spot a marmot that information also went into the database, as did any sightings from anyone I met on the mountains.
Still to be finished is a map of both mountains showing all information collected, including historic sightings. Next year, the locations of hibernating colonies will hopefully be added. (One colony may have tens of burrows for temporary shelter but only one or two are used for hibernating.) On Vancouver Island, Andrew Bryant uses a helicopter in May to locate hibernation burrows by looking for holes in the snow marked with dirt. These are the emergence tunnels excavated by marmots from their hibernating burrow. A similar project for both mountains here will yield a wealth of information within about two hours of flying time each year.
Increasing the number of human eyes is another way to get an idea of population trends. That’s where surveying locals hikers and alpine staff comes in. (Please see the survey attached to this article if you would like to participate.) The anecdotal information gathered to date has been remarkably consistent and has revealed similar trends for lost colonies.
What caused the decline remains the toughest question to answer. A decline occurring only in Whistler would point towards causes like predation or a virus or human-caused disturbance. The possibility of a regional trend, in Manning Park and throughout the Coast Mountains, points instead toward a climate-related cause. The chief suspect now is the exceptionally heavy snow pack of 1998-99.
Great skiing far into the summer (like last year) means a short or non-existent growing season in the alpine. What should have been lush wildflower meadows were still snow-covered last August, in fact, some spots where vegetation normally grows never melted. It certainly couldn’t have been a feast year for herbivores like marmots and pikas.
A marmot’s life is a delicate balance between shelter and food. Unfortunately, they’re not normally complementary. A burrow only provides some shelter in winter, it’s the snow on top which provides the insulation necessary to keep the temperature at a marmot-friendly constant. Deep snow provides the best insulation, but too deep and the snow melts so late it reduces the supply of plants which marmots and other herbivores rely upon.
I haven’t tallied up all the observations yet, but early results are enough to confirm people’s suspicions. There aren’t many marmots in the alpine and it seems 7th Heaven marmots have been especially hard hit. It was an eerie experience to walk beside so many old burrows and so seldom see or hear marmots.
Most of Whistler Mountain was similarly under-populated except in a location which surprised me, the Glacier Bowl-Shaleslope area. Active burrows dotted the landscape here and this is where I saw seven marmots on the same day. Why my surprise? The area is north-facing and therefore retains snow long after 7th Heaven has melted. For the same reason, it supports far less vegetation. Wildflowers, a marmot’s favourite late season food, are especially sparse.
Next year’s study will help answer why marmots might have done better in what appears to be less hospitable terrain. My goal is to come up with a recipe for the perfect marmot habitat, that is, how marmots balance their sometimes conflicting needs for good shelter and plentiful food.
This information will help the ski area provide better conditions for marmots. As Arthur DeJong sees it: "Our role with the ski area is to avoid as best we can impacting the areas that are quality habitat for marmots and to study if there’s any way we can replicate or enhance habitat." Part of that enhancement includes revegetating ski runs with native plants palatable to marmots, pikas, and other alpine animals.
A while back, CBC Radio interviewed the mayor of a place called Lake City which, embarrassingly, lacked a lake. A Whistler without hoary marmots would be even more unthinkable since marmots are such an integral part of our mountain ecology. Plus, it just wouldn’t seem right to be in the mountains and not see or hear them. Even though they make great plush toys, nothing beats live marmots in the mountains.
For more information:
There’s a terrific, award-winning site about Vancouver Island marmots at www.marmots.org. It greets you with a recorded marmot whistle and contains a very informative slide show about Vancouver Island marmot biology. You’ll also find out how to support efforts to save Vancouver Island marmots from extinction.
For a comprehensive look at marmots throughout the world, go to the Marmot Burrow (http://falcon.cc.ukans.edu/~marmota/marmotburrow.html). One of the great links takes you to sound recordings and photos of all 14 world-wide species.
Bob Brett is a Whistler-based ecologist. His scientific research focuses on subalpine and alpine ecosystems, mainly because there’s not many nicer places to work.