Marmots are a group of large ground squirrels. There are fourteen species of marmot, most of which live in mountainous habitats of North America, Europe, and Asia.
The Vancouver Island marmot is notable because it is the rarest of the marmots, and is considered one of the most critically endangered species of North America. It is found in high, south- or southwest-facing alpine meadows of Vancouver island, at an altitude of over 1000 meters. Over the past few decades, the species has disappeared completely from about two-thirds of its former range, and aggressive conservation efforts are underway to ensure the survival of the species.
This species of marmot is quite unique in appearance. It has a thick, rich chestnut-brown coat with a creamy white patch around the nose and down to the throat. Usually there is a mottled white streak along the chest and belly. The tail is somewhat bushy. The Vancouver Island marmot is similar in size to a medium to large housecat, weighing up to about fifteen pounds, although its weight may vary considerably by season due to hibernation.
Vancouver Island marmots live in colonies made up of one or more families. Families consist usually of one adult male, one or two adult females, and the offspring of those females born during that year. The colony lives in a complex network of underground burrows. These marmots hibernate from late September to early May. During hibernation the entrances to the burrows are sealed with plugs made of mud and grass. Mating occurs in spring and litters, usually born in July, consist of about three pups.
Vancouver Island marmots are herbivores, and are known to eat around fifty different kinds of plants, usually focusing on grasses in spring and other plants later in summer and early fall.
Even in the best of times, the required habitat for the Vancouver Island marmot is rare. In recent decades, declines have been accelerated by habitat disruption due to logging, development of some habitat areas for ski resorts, increases in the population of wolves, and weather fluctuations likely due to global warming. By 1997 the species had become so rare that wildlife managers began to capture some individuals for captive breeding in zoos, with the goal of releasing offspring back into the wild. In 2003 a census found only 21 individuals surviving in the wild. However, since that time over 300 marmots have been rereleased, and in 2010 a survey estimated about 250-300 individuals surviving. More releases are planned for the future in the hope of building up the numbers.
There is an organization, the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation, that is dedicated to the recovery of the marmot population in the wild. You can learn more about their efforts or donate at their web site.